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Lucien GUÉRINEL (b. 1930)
Huit préludes (1981-1995) [18:52]
Deux études (1979-1982) [9:05]
Songe, Mouvement (1993) [17:02]
Chant, Espaces I, II, III (1985-1991) [20:26]
Pour un enfant et un piano (1958-1975) [6:50]
Chemins de ronde (1998-2008) [27:39]
Douze micro-études (1984-1990) [11:31]
Deux inscriptions: pour Maurice Ohana (1987); pour Debussy (2013) [9:19]
Douze petites pieces (2010-2011) [10:23]
Jeu memoire (2001) [4:40]
Quatre pieces vraiment petites (2013) [6:42]
Jean-Louis Roblin (piano), Christophe Manien (piano 2)
rec. Studio Acoustique, dates not given.
MEGADISC MDC7874 [72:16+70:14]

There isn’t a massive amount of detailed information about Lucien Guérniel’s life to be found online, though it seems he grew up in Tunisia from 1932 to 1949, studied in Paris from 1954 to 1961 and lived in Marseille before moving to Burgundy in 2002. His output includes two operas and numerous scores including voice, the majority of his premières being based in France though his works have been performed all over the world. Guérniel has also published several collections of poems.

Poetic nuance is a strong element that runs through this entire programme of piano works. Guérniel’s idiom can be summed up as ‘atonal’, though that hardly covers the depth and variety of character and atmosphere that emerges as one listens, nor indeed that of the musical techniques set in motion. The first of the Deux Études for instance is called Gravitations, orbiting as it does around middle C on the keyboard. You might expect to discover some kind of convention in terms of tonal leanings with such a concept, but Guérniel’s chords and gestures keep us guessing, teasing the ear and defying our preconceptions at the same time. The second of these, Focales, demands Boulez-like technical feats from the pianist, something the composer ultimately admitting that this “falls within the province of madness”.

More atmospheric is the enigmatic Songe, Mouvement, which emerges from a broad canvas of sonic repose into eloquence and dramatic violence, but always in slowly unfolding harmonic evolutions that keep us grounded even where the notes are coming thick and fast. Explorations of the sheer sonority of the instrument are always in evidence, but in particular the Chant, Espaces for two pianos owe some of their ruminative and exploratory registrations to a 1930s Pleyel piano on which Guérniel was working at the time.

Simpler in texture though by no means straightforward are the sets of pieces for children. Pour un enfant et un piano is a set of eight pieces that cover a great deal of technical ground, some of which and would be by no means easy even for skilled players, and even given their brevity the Douze micro-études have plenty of meat on their bones. Guérniel is more playful here, managing to deliver serious music and some pretty uncompromising challenges, while rewarding the artistry achieved with pieces that, not unlike Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, would impress on any concert stage.

Poetry is again strong in Chemins de ronde or ‘parapet walks’, in which the first of three movements, Dans le vif de l’instant (‘in the heat of the moment’) is both edgy and boldly expressionist in its building of dramatic ‘tableaux’ from places of mystery – a coalescing of event and action from seemingly disparate or capricious sources. The strange, monodic third movement, Mélodie, perceives from the battlements “some solitary silhouette, wandering, bruised, desperately seeking a voice…”

The two quietly exquisite Inscriptions have dedications but don’t use quotes from their dedicatees: “It is indeed as if one affixed a small marble plaque (because of the rain) on which is inscribed a word echoing the timbre of a loved one’s voice. We don’t copy, we don’t quote, but the echo must be in tune with that timbre.” Jeu mémoire is almost another tribute, in this case to Bach, a reference to whom was demanded by the rules of a competition for which it was written. Guérinel almost escapes tonality, but the Fugue in A minor theme steers the music towards an atmosphere that sometimes recalls Messiaen, the figure “discreetly saluting Bach’s memory” from a distance, tinkling “like bells”. The collection concludes with the Quatre pieces vraiment petites, a title that has an air of Erik Satie about it, and four little pieces that are all given titles starting with the letter ‘f’, all with the exception of the repose of Feuillet are “flashes in the pan.”

This nicely presented, well recorded, superbly performed and deeply intriguing body of work is worthy of anyone’s attention. It’s not the sort of thing that is easily – or sensibly – taken in at a single sitting, but like good poetry there will be pieces here that are sure to draw you back for more, and every time you return you will discover new things and find your mental pathways ever more willing to follow Guérinel’s impeccable feel for proportion, mood, and compelling musical logic and argument. Lucien Guérinel’s character shines through in the interview that makes up the bulk of the booklet notes, and as one of my old professors used to say, it’s clear ‘he’s one of the good guys’: “I keep my sense of humour, otherwise I’d sink.”

Dominy Clements

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