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Karol BEFFA (b. 1973)
Into the Dark
Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra (2005) [20:44]
Concerto for Harp and String Orchestra (2013) [8:41]
Dark for Piano and String Orchestra (2013) [7:00]
Nuit obscure for Voice and String Orchestra (2012) [17:00]
Dédale (Maze) for String Orchestra (and harp, ad libitum) (1999) [12:44]
Rainbow for Piano and String Orchestra (2013) [6:57]
Ensemble Contraste (Karol Beffa (piano); Karine Deshayes (mezzo); Arnaud Thorette (violin, viola, cello); Emmanuel Ceysson (harp))/Johan Farjot
rec. 1 and 14 February 2013, Temple Saint Marcel, Paris.
APARTE AP108 [71:00]

This CD lay neglected on my shelves for several months, having failed to catch my attention when first spun. It had come across as too smooth and lacking in spark or fire. A big mistake, that first impression.

After replaying it once or twice more, the charm of its opening Viola Concerto gradually made itself felt. The Harp Concerto’s engaging harmonies also slowly came to the fore, and with them a sense of exquisite development in all of this music. While this music initially seemed to come close to a wallpaper kind of minimalism that could only appeal as soundtrack, in the end it proved to have outstanding grace and delicacy.

Hoping to alert others to Beffa, a French-born Pole, I set out for a YouTube clip of his succinct but very appealing Rainbow, for piano and strings — yet found only an excerpt. In this piece, the soloist, Beffa himself, runs through a series of tension-raising scales against a harmonizing backdrop of pulsing strings. The structure more than vaguely echoes Ravel's Adagio assai from his Piano Concerto in G Major. Beffa’s emulation of the slow middle movement of that concerto — surely a summit among the twentieth century’s musical peaks — sets him a very high standard. Yet he need not skulk nor hide after seeking his own voice through Ravel’s invention, since he manages to craft a very worthy one of his own.

Originality is not the be-all in music; just consider how much ugly original ‘classical’ was circulating in recordings yet seldom in concert halls, after the middle of the twentieth century. Also, it is no secret that Mozart’s music inspired parts of the Concerto in G — to say nothing about how adroitly, and profitably, Ravel took from the flash and sparkle of early jazz.

Beffa experiments with Ravel’s Adagio assai elsewhere. In a 10:22 piece called Mirages, for two pianos (on Triton TRI 331157; also check the online Naxos Music Library), he cites its themes, runs through several variations, and at least once unabashedly quotes the diminuendo after the movement’s peak. Beyond these re-articulations early on in Mirages, Beffa strays from the Ravel to craft an entirely different music, with only a brief return (at 6:29) to the famous diminuendo.

His reworking of the same music lurks more subtly in the opening Viola Concerto, and near overtly after the first movement’s seventh minute. The themes preceding it bear little resemblance to the Ravel, but what follows reflects it by gradually raising tensions that are loosed after the climax. So the homage is in the shaping, and not, this time, in quotations and inversions, since Beffa’s own themes and flavours here are of a very distinct garb. In this concerto’s second, final movement, a Vif, the soloist comes closest on this disc to the fiery and grandiose. Beffa’s liner-notes characterize this material, with only slight overstatement, as rich with “… violent, biting punctuations like cracks of a whip.”

Mezzo Karine Deshayes is fully in command of the often solemn material in Nuit obscure, for Voice and String Orchestra. This melancholic cycle of four songs features poems by the mystic Saint John of the Cross. Deshayes infuses the lyrics with haunting colours, while the strings contribute an intriguingly moody, dissonant counterpoint. The booklet supplies the poems’ opening lines in Spanish (Un pastorcico solo; Del Verbo divino; Sin arrimo y con arrimo; and ˇOh llama de amor viva!), although actual titles may have been better (El pastorcico, Navideńa, Glosa, and Canciones del Alma II, respectively [Little Shepherd Boy; Christmas lyric; Gloss {a type of poem}; and Songs of the Soul II]). Best yet, the full texts Beffa uses could easily have been included in the booklet, along with translated versions for those with no Castilian Spanish.

Orchestras tend to overwhelm their lead instruments in compositions that feature the harp or the harpsichord — Poulenc’s concerto? Beyond smart microphone placement, such pairings need reduced orchestral forces to succeed: Martinu’s, Martin’s, Leigh’s? Beffa’s Harp Concerto does just this, and with the string ensemble crafts a melodic, engaging work of surprising impact. Soloist Emmanuel Ceysson merits special mention for lending it far more than the merely dreamy evocations one usually expects from his instrument. At the same time, this work does not shy from the ethereal spaces evoked by Rautavaara’s soundscapes. This concise Harp Concerto is without peer in my collection, and is often revisited.

The delicious tensions that Beffa builds in this work, as elsewhere, also call to mind Frank Martin. The kinship may best be noted in a collection of Martin’s outstanding string compositions under Hans Stadlmair’s baton (Munich Chamber Orchestra. Koch-Schwann 3-6732-2; review). Despite the Swiss composer’s more pointed or astringent melodic shaping, both composers share a distinctly Gallic sensibility and refinement of approach.

The string ensemble is featured on this album, and Beffa employs it with finesse and mastery throughout. Aside from in the viola and harp concertos, gently dissonant strings undergird Dark, the brief Piano Concerto, Rainbow, which also features a piano; and the song-cycle — the disc’s second longest composition after the 20-minute Viola Concerto. Dédale, where the harp makes an ad libitum appearance, comes closest to a work for string orchestra alone. Oddly, considering that instrument, this work shows considerable sharpness, even urgency.

The seven-minute Dark, Concerto for Piano, with the composer at the instrument, is a highly approachable, atmospheric piece in two movements. The first is a loping episode with an enchanting thematic core that is turned this way and that, and varied and traded with the orchestra. Its central melody may remind one of Miklós Rózsa’s warm theme for the film Providence — high praise indeed, if you know that music. It is also nearly as full of the wistful nostalgia of the Homenaje a Juan José Castro, one of Alberto Ginastera's pithy 12 American Preludes. The movement that follows is a less straightforward, more abstract, yet also enigmatic re-presentation of the same motifs. While this work’s brevity might raise eyebrows about calling it a concerto, Dark is yet another inspired composition with a substantial impact.

This album is for those interested in subtle contemporary music with gentle dissonances in approachable works that seldom stray from the mid-tempo. Musical development in Beffa usually happens by gradual accretions, and rarely does one hear anything flashy, abrupt or over the edge. The strong sense of organic development results from subtle harmonic shifts; solo instruments act mostly as primus inter pares, very seldom extemporizing as centre-stage leads. In fact, despite Beffa’s obvious gifts for melodic felicity and compositional inventiveness, the range of his palette on this CD could not be called wide. For all that, he aims for the sublime in his music, not unlike Ravel and Mozart, and his reach does not exceed his grasp.

The photograph on the cover is well-chosen: like the music, it is stark, enigmatic and somehow crisp, yet far from merely cerebral. The composer provides notes about each work for the booklet. An overview of sorts was also penned by a Sylvain Fort. Translated from French, it suffers from the high-flown verbiage to which Romance languages can be prone. Essentially poetical, even florid waxings that aspire to be evocative; to this ear these notes verge on fashionista gab since they disdain any specifics.

Anyone on the lookout for new composers to follow knows that art or ‘classical’ music is far more than about tried-and-true music from past centuries. On the evidence of this 2013 album, my surprise discovery of 2015 and this year so far, Beffa is one to watch. Do get this CD, and consider if his music to come manages to fulfill the rich promise that you, too, are sure to find here.

Bert Bailey

Youtube performances of works by Karol Beffa
Violin concerto: First movement ~ Second movement
Piano concerto 2
Piano pieces



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