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Benoît MERNIER (b. 1964)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2015) [28:28]a
Vi(v)a! (2010) [7:49]b
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2008) [25:02]c
Lorenzo Gatto (violin); David Lively (piano)
Orchestre National de Belgique/Andrey Boreyko (violin)
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège/Pascal Rophé (Vi(v)a)
Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon/Ernest Martínez Izquierdo (piano)
rec. live, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Belgium, 13 February 2015 (Violin); Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium, 8 October 2010 (Vi(v)a) and Opéra Berlioz, Montpellier, France, 8 February 2014 (Piano)
CYPRES CYP4644 [61:24]

Benoît Mernier's Violin Concerto was part of a series of works commissioned by the Orchestre National de Belgique to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of WW1. It is cast as a diptych consisting of two strongly contrasted panels. Each movement is titled after Guillaume Apollinaire who fought and who was wounded during WW1. Although the music is never descriptive, the mood of each panel is clearly inspired by these Apollinaire allusions. So, the first movement Entends la terre véhémente (Hear the vehement earth) is sombre, ominous and, at times, literally earth-shaking. That said, the composer cleverly eschews any all-too-obvious clichés likely to suggest explosions, bombardments and the like.

Opening in the depths of the orchestra, it takes some time for the music to open up, actually until the first entry of the soloist although he is often drowned by the orchestra. This is deliberate for the piece as a whole is conceived more on symphonic lines although this does not mean that technical virtuosity is completely brushed aside. On the contrary, for the solo part is quite demanding both technically and musically. Nevertheless the soloist more often than not comes into his own in the course of the movement and of the whole work for that matter. The soloist also has many opportunities for virtuoso display but never gratuitously so. The prevailing dark mood of the first movement nevertheless allows for some calmer, pensive episodes which alternate with more combative sections. In total contrast, the second panel or movement of the concerto La grâce exilée (Grace in exile) is if not appeased, definitely more intimate. It reflects words written or half-written by those who took part in the massive slaughter of WW1 in which they poured out their hearts to their families and friends. Now the prevailing mood is rather one of appeasement although the music is not without rough or sharper edges and massive climaxes that tend to disrupt the apparent calm of the movement's opening. The second panel, though, ends in utter quietness, dissolving into thin air. As already mentioned, Mernier's Violin Concerto is conceived on a grand scale and is clearly symphonic in scope but the solo part calls both for instrumental stamina and endurance as well as musicality. This it receives in full from Lorenzo Gatto who was involved from the start and who plays this music with consummate skill and assurance. He gave the first performance of Benoît Mernier's Violin Concerto in Liège on 12 February 2015 with a repeat performance in Brussels, which is what has been retained here.

The short overture Vi(v)a! was one of the works commissioned by the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège to mark their fiftieth anniversary. One might think that the circumstances would have triggered a somewhat simpler, more straightforward piece but the composer obviously thought otherwise. Though the work partly retains its festive character, rather capricious than overtly celebratory, it is not without its darker moments, however short-lived. As such the work may be experienced as a short, brilliant concerto for orchestra confirming Benoît Mernier's orchestral mastery.

The somewhat earlier Piano Concerto shares many characteristics with the other works recorded here. However, it is a more extroverted work than the Violin Concerto and the overall mood is sunnier, somewhat lighter, hinting – deliberately or not – at Ravel's Concerto in G which it resembles without ever attempting imitation or pastiche. It is in three movements: two rather weightier ones capped by a short finale. The composer admits that the tempo of the movements is rather more ambiguous than the more usual fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement is what one might expect from a concerto: a sequence of fast and slower sections. The second movement, however, is, according to the composer, a slow Scherzo in which the contours are rather blurred so that it is often difficult to decide whether this is a slow or another fast movement. Indeed it opens at breakneck speed though this does not last long. Later the music unfolds through a variety of moods at times rising to some imposing, massive climaxes. A similar ambiguity still briefly prevails in the slow introduction to the short and hyper-active third movement. The taxing solo part is superbly played by David Lively who is dearly remembered in Belgium for having been a brilliant finalist at the Queen Elizabeth Competition as is Lorenzo Gatto.

These performances, though recorded live, are really very fine. Committed and immaculate playing by all concerned.

I have already had the opportunity to consider earlier discs devoted to Benoît Mernier's music (review ~ review ~ review) and this one is on a par with the others. Any of them is likely to provide a fair musical portrait of this most endearing composer. However, if this composer and his music are new to you, this disc provides the best introduction possible to his challenging, but always rewarding music.

Hubert Culot



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