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Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre
Volume XVII - Vers La vie Nouvelle
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Au pays dévasté (1919) [5:28]
William BAINES (1899-1922)
Paradise Gardens (1918-1919) [8:46]
Georges ENESCU (1881-1955)
Deux Pièces impromptues de la Suite No.3 Op.18 (1916) [12:33]
Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979)
Vers La vie Nouvelle (1915) [4:13]
Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
4 Danze (1917) [31:53]
Anne de Fornel (Pleyel Piano)
rec. L'École Américaine de Paris, France 27-29 June 2015
HORTUS 717 [63:02]

Volume XVIII - Ombres et Lumières
Rudi STEPHAN (1887-1915)
Musik für sieben Saiteninstrumente (1911) [26:51
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Quintette pour piano et cordes Op.42 (1918) [34:42]
Lucien DUROSOIR (1878-1955)
Poème pur violon, alto et piano (1920) [11:59]
Ensemble Calliopée
rec. L'auditorium Jean-Pierre-Miquel, Vincennes France, April 2015
HORTUS 718 [72:32]

Another pair of discs in Hortus' excellent Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre series that both bring credit to themselves and add to the increasing stature of this impressive series.

For want of a better word, Volume 17 is a gentler more intimate affair than some of the preceding discs. Pianist Anne de Fronel is the excellent guide through an enjoyable recital of music of considerable range and impact. Gentler, perhaps, because although the composers were all affected by the War, none suffered the immediate impact or loss that some of their fellow artists did. Again, I am impressed how Hortus have combined intelligent programming with dedicated and insightful performers to produce a disc that is informative, packed with interest and of real artistic merit. Of additional interest is that de Fornel plays on an 1892 Pleyel piano. She contributes a note in the liner titled; "A sonorous alchemy". In it she writes; "this recording allowed me the opportunity to discover an exceptional instrument.... abandoned in a castle in the Pyrenees...faithfully restored over three years. More powerful than a Pleyel from the days of Frederic Chopin, this instrument perfectly reflects its time period through its substantial sound projection, refined sonority and prominent registers of crystal clear high tones and deep bass notes." In essence, this translates as a less homogenised tone; the middle-upper range has an edge and distinct character that allows lines written within this range to project with greater autonomy than a modern instrument might allow. As performed here, with one exception, I find this wholly to the benefit of the music and another feather in the cap of all involved.

Again, Hortus find a skilled balance in presenting music - mainly unfamiliar - by composers of differing backgrounds and fame. Cécile Chaminade lived through as militarily a turbulent period in French history as any - 13 years old at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, she lived through the two following World Wars, not dying until 1944. Her friends and mentors read like a who's-who of the French composing community. She was already 57 when World War I broke out and set in her musical ways. As the liner says, she was "hostile to Wagner, indifferent to Duparc, baffled by Debussy, cautious regarding Ravel". For all the craft of her music, it rarely challenges any kind of convention. She is represented here by the elegiac Au pays dévasté, which is a simple and attractive work. The liner likens it to early Fauré, which seems to me spot on. The ear instantly registers the tangy sound of the Pleyel piano. Harmonically and rhythmically Chaminade is modestly conservative with an attractive feel for a melodic line but rather limited in emotional scope. That being said, de Fornel pitches her performance with skilled perfection - there is an ideal sense of ebb and flow - and she plays the piece with unforced passion, making the very best case for its modest aims.

William Baines' Paradise Gardens dates from almost exactly the same time. Baines, despite chronic ill health, was drafted into the British Army late in the War but saw no active service. After his discharge, he was to live only another four years before dying, aged 23, of tuberculosis. Essentially self-taught, he wrote some 150 works - few of which were published in his lifetime. His presence in the catalogue is limited to two Eric Parkin discs on Lyrita and Priory, both of which include this work as does Alan Cuckston's Baines and Goossens recital on Swinsty Records. The liner notes "... an impressionistic climate that leads one to suspect that Baines ... read through the works of Debussy." Again an assertion I would agree with, although linkage to Delius as well is more of a knee-jerk association of the piece's title with one of Delius' most famous works rather than anything else. As an aside – it is worth remembering that Delius' Paradise Garden is a country pub, not some hidden Eden - the key to that work is the walk to the Paradise Garden.

Baines shares a similar salon sensibility with Chaminade but with a heightened - although not radical - use of harmony and a much more fluid sense of form. Certainly, his death at 23 robbed British music of a distinctive and very beautiful voice. Comparing de Fornel to either Parkin or Cuckston is informative. All three pianists are completely in tune with the pastoral idiom and all bring a beautifully limpid touch and elegance to this very beautiful work. Timings are very similar; Cuckston and Parkin lie just either side of nine minutes and de Fornel is 8:46. The significant difference is again the contribution of the Pleyel piano. I like very much indeed the tonal equality of the pianos of Cuckston and Parkin, but de Fornel's Pleyel does bring an extra character to the work - there is an extra fragility to the piano tone that strikes me as wholly apt and very touching. The instrument's varied timbre again helps de Fornel delineate the voicings of this often thickly scored work. Not better, just different.

If Baines still struggles for wider recognition in a limited field, Georges Enescu's brilliance across varied musical fields is well-known. But for all that, the majority of his works fail to penetrate the wider public's musical consciousness. Enescu's (the liner prefers Enesco as the spelling) War work consisted of conducting concerts for the Red Cross. While the music represented here - two linked movements from his Op.18 Suite No.3 - was completed in 1916, the liner does not make any direct associations between the music and the War. In the second piece - the 7th and final movement of the Suite, Carillon Nocturne - the liner writer postulates that the sombre tolling of the night bell somehow echoes the mood of the time. What is certain is that in its own right it is another impressive and powerful piece, bigger in its concept and emotional reach than Chaminade or Baines try to be. Again, I have nothing but praise for de Fornel, who conjures up a rather disturbing image of a troubled nocturnal tocsin. Here, most of all in the entire recital, the metallic gleam of the Pleyel's middle/upper range perfectly underpins Enescu's dissonant bell-like writing. I have not seen a score but de Fornel very evocatively plays the piece with a slightly out of phase approach which underlines the shadowy nightmarish quality of the work - for me it’s the highlight of an impressive disc. If the Pleyel makes its biggest contribution to this Carillon, curiously I find it least effective in the companion movement, the Choral [the work's original 6th movement]. This is simply because - as the title suggests - Enescu writes widely spaced chordal progressions where for once you do want to hear absolute tonal equality from top to bottom. Do not get me wrong - this is still a fine performance of a fine work - but simply the only occasion in the recital where I felt the instrument used did not add to the experience. I see from the catalogue that these two movements are included on a Naxos disc of Enescu piano works and the complete Suite has been recorded by Ewa Kupiec on Solaris and Luiza Borac on Avie amongst others - none of which I have heard .

The disc takes its title from a brief piece written in 1915 by Nadia Boulanger, Vers la vie nouvelle. Boulanger's fame rests mainly as a teacher but her compositions, although not vast in number, are well worth consideration too. The work recorded here carries an epigraph; "In the weighty atmosphere doubt, discouragement have seeped in. But far away, clear pure sounds rise up, and towards hope in a better life mankind walks confident, gentle and solemn." The piece itself mirrors this narrative very clearly, from a slowly tolling deep melody at the opening which rises through the keyboard, with harmony and texture thickening as it goes. Curiously, the middle section is reminiscent to me of Bax's piano works although I cannot imagine either were aware of the other's music at that time. The strength of the work lies in its unaffected simplicity and clarity of musical thought. Again, de Fornel has the measure of the work to perfection and it proves to be a gem.

By some degree - taking up close to half the disc's entire playing time - the most substantial work offered here is Jean Cras' 4 Danze. I must admit to not having encountered any of Cras' work before. The Timpani label has done him proud committing much of this part-time composer's music to disc from orchestral to opera, chamber and piano - including these dances. Part-time because Cras was an officer in the French Navy. Music written in wartime can be divided into two types, crudely speaking; music written in direct response to war, and music written as an escape from it. Cras' 4 Dances emphatically occupy the latter category. Written while Cras commanded a French torpedo boat in the Adriatic, one can only imagine how unusual it must have been for the 82 officers and men on board to hear such music wafting up - he had a piano installed in his cabin - from the Captain's quarters.

Musically this is gently conservative - Debussy circa 1885 - and although exhibiting a good range of emotion this does not strive to be profound or 'significant' Art. The opening Danza mórbida is the longest of the four at 9:38 - interestingly with a similar effect of gently insistent tolling as the Boulanger. It conjures up a hypnotic meditative quality quite at odds, one imagines, with the cramped clamour of ship-life. The following Danza scherzosa has a good-natured bustling energy that again reminds me of Debussy's early piano suites. The third Danza ténera was dedicated to Cras' wife Isaure and is a gently tender love letter that rises to an impassioned chordal climax - another lovely piece of simple sincerity. The set is completed effectively by a Danza animata. This could only be music written by a Frenchman - there is a clear-eyed energetic bustling bonhomie that is unmistakeable. Again, all the pieces are exceptionally well-served by de Fornel and the clarity the Pleyel piano imparts. She seems to have the sense of unforced flow which this music requires - listen to how she builds the final valedictory climax in this closing dance. Nothing is over-interpreted but at the same time she has the absolute emotional measure of these impressive scores.

As before, Hortus back up the artistic excellence of the disc with discreetly effective engineering and truly fascinating documentary information. Additionally, archive photographs add substantially to the impact of the entire disc. There are photographs of Cras on board his ship which are both revealing and touching. If only Hortus would proof their liners more carefully! In both the French and English notes, a paragraph about the Baines work is transposed to after the section about the Enescu. This is a tiny and far from important error but it’s a shame that such a lovingly produced disc is marred by a moment's carelessness. None of the music presented here is new to the catalogue, but the combined programme is unique and, when presented with de Fornel's superb musicianship allied to the tonal fascination of the period Pleyel piano, this is a disc to treasure.

Volume XVIII takes as its title; "Ombres et Lumières" and features three strikingly individual, very different and very powerful works. In different ways, each of the three composers experienced the very harshest realities of War. The German composer Rudi Stephan died on the Eastern Front on September 29th 1915 aged just 28. Unable to bare the screams of wounded Russian soldiers, he left the German trenches in such a way as to be an easy target for enemy snipers. The bulk of the work he left had been written in the nine years from 1905 and includes the darkly powerful Music for Seven Stringed Instruments recorded here. The actual instrumental line-up is String Quartet plus double bass, harp and piano. Written in two movements, this is a turbulent and impressive piece and one that strains at the self-imposed chamber group instrumentation. In essence, Stephan uses the quartet to carry the bulk of the musical argument, with the bass and piano adding weight and depth but little independent musical material. The harp is most sparingly used but when it is the effect is transformative and most telling. The score can be viewed on IMSLP and what it and this recording reveals is how effectively Stephan handles the instruments even at such a young age. The music shares the same passionate and tense character as much other Germanic music of the period although with fewer harmonic convulsions. But at the same time, Stephan manages to create a strikingly individual voice. Sadly, there is not much in the current catalogue to investigate. I would recommend the Chandos disc of some orchestral works as a good example of his style. The work under consideration has been recorded previously and is palpably from the same pen as the orchestral music. Just how effective a writer Stephan can be is evidenced by the work's 2nd movement, titled Nachspiel. It keeps textures relatively sparse but foreshadows Bartók's numerous night musics. There is a playful yet haunted dreamlike character that keeps the music intriguingly ambiguous. Stephan seemed to delight in rather functional anti-Romantic names for his music, foreshadowing the likes of Hindemith.

Throughout the disc, I was impressed by the commitment and musicality of the members of Ensemble Calliopée. This is fine ensemble playing from a group who have proved their enduring interest in this music by being the resident ensemble at the Museum of the Great War at Meaux. My only concern was the intrusion of some of the most noisy sniffing and laboured breathing that I have ever heard on disc. On headphones in particular this is very noticeable - the quality of the music and performances won the day for me but I could imagine it being a significant issue for some listeners.

The next offering in the programme is another impressive work - Louis Vierne's thirty-five-minute Piano Quintet. Again, this is by no means new to the catalogue - several other versions exist - but it was new to me. Vierne will always be primarily associated with the organ loft and sacred music, which makes the choice of a Piano Quintet as his 'In Memoriam' for his son, "En ex-voto à la mémoire de mon cher fils Jacques mort pour La France à 17 ans", somewhat surprising. Vierne wrote more; "I will make something powerful, grandiose and strong.... as for me, the last to bear my name, I will bury him in a roaring of thunder, not in a plaintive bleating of a resigned and blissful sheep." And Vierne keeps his word - he traverses all the imaginable emotions from profound grief to rage and tender remembrance. There are moments when I feel this is too much of an invasion into private grieving. The gently lyrical second subject would be a moving melody if it were presented as absolute music. In the context here, as it builds to a surging unison statement by the entire quartet, it is quite heartbreaking. But Vierne avoids this 'just' becoming a half-hour beating of the breast - it is a triumphant fusion of form and content. Clearly the emotions run deep and burn bright, but Vierne the composer marshals them with impressive control. Formally and harmonically, the work is more traditional than the Stephan - the lineage back to Franck is clear albeit couched in a slightly more modernist idiom. Vierne gives his pianist much more musical independence than Stephan. The central Larghetto Sostenuto opens with a tender berceuse, where string lines float either in unison or solo over arpeggiated piano accompaniment. The reverie is broken and the writing becomes more agitated although this alternates with passages of uneasy calm. Vierne favours 'big' unisons for the strings. This makes it hard to maintain absolute tonal blend and intonation, but the strings of Ensemble Calliopée do have the measure of the work's inherent drama. The closing pages, with the strings now muted, seem more of an overt lament for that which is lost.

The use of the qualifying term risoluto in the Finale's main allegro is interesting. The music does try to stride forward with an energetic determination in the face of tragic adversity. At almost exactly the halfway point of the movement, this energy peters out quite suddenly and from a rumbling piano bass line float down some wispy string chords. The music has a fragmented, lost quality - a search for meaning where none seems to exist. By force of willpower another big unison heaves itself out of the stasis where it had become mired. Over the final pages of the work Vierne builds one last fist-shaking climax, bringing this rather wonderful work to a slightly predictable ending.

Ensemble Calliopée have already contributed an entire disc of music by Lucien Durosoir, but the trio for violin, viola and piano presented here is getting its world premiere recording. "My violin saved my life" wrote Durosoir after the War. By training he was a violin soloist - of a standard to give the premiere of the Strauss Concerto in France. He was encouraged by a General at the front to form a string quartet. Music was his way of coping with the appalling realities of War and, having survived, he determined to devote himself to the creation of a substantial sequence of works. This particular trio was premiered at a concert given in Vincennes on November 10th 1920 "for the dedication of the Festival Hall and for the benefit of the monument to the dead of the Great War." Durosoir went on to write an orchestral version, but the bulk of his surviving compositions are chamber works. This combination of instruments is unusual and works very well indeed. The impression is of a long stream of lyrical/contrapuntal writing. There is a far greater abiding sense of serenity than was present in the Vierne Quintet. Again, it is fascinating to compare how differently the piano is handled. It is not only the presence of fewer instruments that creates altogether leaner, 'lighter' music. The violin writing is predominantly in the instrument's middle-to-high register and the ending is quite enchanting, with the two strings disappearing into the ether over a gently repeating piano figure. Quite how this fitted into a programme of orchestral works, speeches, patriotic songs and the like I cannot imagine. The liner states, that although the work premiered in Vincennes there is no proof it was commissioned by the town. A delightful and touching work that completes a programme of real value and wide ranging interest.

Again, Hortus has produced a disc of great musical worth. Each of the three pieces vies with the others for pre-eminence. Placing the Durosoir last strikes me as a little touch of genius - its transfiguring serenity bringing touching closure to a disc of much pain and loss. As ever in this series, the quality of the music is supported and enhanced by a liner which informs us not only about the music but offers fascinating articles about Rudi Stephan, Durosoir (written by his daughter-in-law, the musicologist Georgie Durosoir) and the monument for the dead at Vincennes. Again, archive photographs add another layer of human interest and round off the disc to perfection.

Another fine pair of discs in a series that is going from strength to strength.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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