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Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 94 [25:32]
Sonate Fantastique, Op. 63 [24:49]
Promenade en Mer, Op. 86 [3:28]
Sur la Mer, Op. 44 [4.13]
Au Matin, Op. 83 [5:30]
Conte de Fée, Op. 62
Eliane Reyes (piano)
rec. 31 January, 26 April 2014, Recital Studio B, Tihange, Belgium
World première recordings escepts sonatas
GRAND PIANO GP683 [69:40]

Godard was born in Paris in 1849, entering the Conservatoire in 1863, where he studied violin under Henri Vieuxtemps, and harmony with composer, Napoléon Henri Reber, who was also Massenet’s teacher. In 1876, Godard’s Concerto romantique for violin was performed at the Concerts Populaires, along with other of his works. In 1878, he was co-winner of the Prix de la Ville de Paris – rather than the more prestigious Prix de Rome – for his dramatic symphony, ‘Le Tasso’, which still remains one of his most admired works. From then until his death, his output was prolific, and included eight operas – among them ‘Jocelyn’, from which comes the ‘Berceuse’ that remains arguably the Godard’s best-known piece. He became a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1887, and was made Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur two years later. For a fuller biography, Katy Hamilton’s sleeve-notes are most helpful.

Considering his extensive list of works – which also embraces three symphonies, two piano concertos, a significant amount of chamber music, mostly including piano, and more than a hundred songs – his music fell out of favour after his somewhat untimely death. It has been suggested that his compositions are of unequal quality, if only because of his prodigious productivity, and that he seems at his best in works of smaller dimensions.

Despite being regarded during his lifetime as one of France’s most promising young composers, as a musician of Jewish heritage, not only did Godard loathe Wagner’s politics, but he was noted for his careful avoidance of the German composer’s influence. He aligned himself musically more with the earlier generations of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and even Beethoven. This, perhaps, is another reason Godard’s music all but disappeared from the concert platform so soon after his death, which happened to coincide with the appearance in print of the early works of Debussy and Ravel. Against these new ideas and innovations, Godard's works could seem decidedly conservative, and even old-fashioned.

The works on the present CD all appeared in print between 1879 and 1884, and combine two substantial works – his two Piano Sonatas – with a collection of piano miniatures. In fact the vast majority of Godard’s piano music consists of character pieces often with descriptive titles, or cast in forms familiar from the works of Chopin – barcarolles, waltzes, mazurkas and nocturnes. As would often be the case with such repertoire, much was written clearly with an eye to the vast and ever-growing market of amateur musicians, and Godard even went so far as to publish a collection of Études, Op. 149, divided by difficulty-level – beginners, students, amateurs and ‘artists’.

The two sonatas on the CD are clearly aimed at professional musicians or, at least very talented amateurs, such are the technical demands made on the performer. The Sonata No. 2 in F minor, Op. 94 was written in 1884, and within moments of the start of the opening ‘Allegro con moto ma non troppo’ a number of interesting and varied textures present themselves, where the principal melody seems to nod knowingly in the direction of the old ‘Dies Irae’ chant. As the music becomes increasingly virtuosic, upward chromatic chordal moves, and sections using Debussy’s whole-tone scale combine to increase the overall tension. Towards the end the chant is triumphantly given out in full chordal harmony, with modal elements lurking not far away. Rapid scales close what certainly has been an stimulating and inventive opening gambit. The ensuing slow movement – in the key of D flat major – provides welcome respite, with its long-phrased lyricism, only to be interrupted later by a more passionate section, over a moving bass-line, with more than a hint here of Chopin, though where an occasional chord would not quite be ready to appear in the Polish composer’s harmonic palette back at the time, despite the chromatic feel to the writing. Tranquillity eventually returns to conclude just over eight minutes of serene beauty.

The finale opens with some of the lightness of a Mendelssohn Scherzo, or one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces in similar mode. A more sustained section acts as a contrasting Trio, before the opening Scherzo returns. This is followed by a reference to the calmer chant-like theme from the opening movement, before rapid scale-work rounds off what has effectively been a synthesis of Scherzo and more-conventional finale – which its tempo marking, ‘Scherzo-Final: Allegro non troppo’, would clearly seek to convey.

Godard’s earlier Sonate Fantastique in C major, Op. 63, which follows on the CD, was published in 1881, and here each of the four movements bears a descriptive title in the manner of a character piece. In fact the movements were also available for purchase separately, suggesting that the composer also envisaged them as discrete, stand-alone compositions. The Sonata opens with ‘Les Génies de la Fôret’ (‘Allegro vivace’) and, with a degree of imagination on the listener’s part, the music could certainly accord with its programme, though, for example, so could the corresponding movement from the Second Sonata, even though that has no programme. Godard’s penchant for chorale-like sections is again evident, as are the occasional integrated scale-passages, now both familiar from the Sonata No. 2, though this opening ‘Allegro’ does feel a little more rambling, in terms of overall structure versus length. A short, bravura ending once more adds a showy finish. ‘Les Farfadets’: Scherzo, vivace ma non troppo – provides the conventional dance element to this four-movement sonata. ‘Farfadets’ are little fairies – rather like elves, or leprechauns’ – and are usually good-hearted, if not occasionally a little naughty. The music certainly captures their character, written in triple time, where chromatically-altered scales and leaps abound. A chordal section in the major adds some contrast, and perhaps also attempts to provide cohesion between these clearly separately-conceived movements. Unlike the ten minutes or so of the previous movement, here Godard keeps the listener engaged for virtually all of its three minutes or so. The third movement also involves a fairy – but from the title – ‘La Fée d’Amour’: Quasi adagio – here we’re talking love, rather than high-spirited frolics. Again, Godard is in his element in this most passionate of slow movements – overtly lyrical in the manner of one of Schumann’s most ardent Art-Songs. The finale – ‘Les Esprits de la Mer’: Allegro vivace – is also a three-verse poem by the composer himself; Godard was a keen poet and set his own words to music on several occasions. According to the programme, the poem ‘reveals the dark intentions of those sea spirits who break up the ships that cross their waves, and then steal the sailors’ lives’. From the opening bars there is a restless movement which conveys the spirit of the words – although something that Liszt and others had already done before, equally as effectively. Harp-like arpeggios finish things off calmly in the major key, as the water once more becomes smooth and unruffled.

Of the four separate character pieces that complete the CD, two continue the sea theme, a third involves fairies again, and another was one of the few pieces by Godard to enjoy some popularity in the decades following his death. Promenade en Mer, Op. 86 (1862) brings to mind Chopin’s ‘Barcarolle’, although by contrast, the following piece, Sur la Mer (1879) is actually subtitled ‘Barcarolle’, yet represents a far choppier sea than any gondolier would elect to sail on. Sur la Mer in fact returns more to the world of the finale of the Sonate Fantastique. However, while Promenade en Mer confines itself very much to home waters, Sur la Mer steers off into more remote waters and keys, before the opening section returns Au Matin, Op 83 (mentioned above as the piece that remained popular after his death) presents a simple melody that is repeated and varied, over a lilting accompaniment, eventually leading to an effective climax, with some by-now characteristic chromatic chordal side-stepping in the harmonic mix. Godard composed two pieces entitled Conte de Fée – ‘fairy tale – of which Op 62 (1882) is the first. Based on a brief motive presented at the start, it follows the usual pattern of a calm beginning, leading to an impassioned middle, and then returning to the calm of the beginning, again with some chromatic movement and a number of augmented chords to boot. Harp-like filigree patterns conclude yet another effective piece of salon writing.

Belgian-pianist, Eliane Reyes, proves the ideal protagonist for Godard’s musical writing, enhanced by the faithfully-recorded Steinway Model D Grand. She has the ability to produce unlimited subtle tonal shadings, is always aware of linear clarity, observes points of articulation with impeccable precision, especially where this involves the simultaneous use of staccato and legato in one hand, and has such a well-honed technique to despatch any of the difficulties with real aplomb. More important, she clearly relates to the essentially salon-music style of the character pieces, while still treating the impressive Second Sonata with more than sufficient academic respect, though never to the detriment of the music’s enjoyment as such. The sleeve-notes are helpful, too, though it’s a pity that they introduce each piece chronologically, and not in the order they are heard on the CD.

If all this is enough to whet your appetite and encourage you to get to know more of Godard’s piano music – in particular the Second Sonata – you will probably not be disappointed. If you find yourself smitten, then this new CD is only the first of a projected set encompassing Godard’s complete Piano Works. If not, there is still lots to commend this engrossing new release.

Philip R Buttall


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