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Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
Sonata for violin and piano No.1 ‘L’Esprit’ (1901) [22:07]
String Trio (1926) [25:01]
Quintet for harp, flute and strings (1928) [23:04]
Marie-Christine Millière (violin),Chantal Riou (piano)
Trio Millière
Catherine Michel (harp); Thomas Prevost (flute)
rec. 1988, Eglise Evangélique Luthérienne, Saint-Pierre, Paris (Trio and Quintet);  2012, Forgotten Records Studio, Rennes (Sonata)

Jean Cras was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel. In common with composers Albert Roussel and Antoine Mariotte, he had a sea-faring career which culminated, in the 1920s, with his appointment as rear admiral and commander-in-chief of the French Navy in Brest. He was the spiritual son of Duparc and looked to César Franck for a model. He selected the best of modern musical trends and incorporated them into his own personal style. His seafaring took him to many exotic locations and brought him into contact with multifarious cultures. These became important influences in his music. His refined harmonies and myriad hues recall Ravel. He also went back to his origins, drawing on Breton folklore and incorporating their songs and dances into his scores. So an attraction to diverse cultures and the passionate quest for discovery invests his music with a spirit of adventure. His chamber music includes three early sonatas for violin, viola and cello with piano, two string trios, a piano trio, a piano quintet and the harp quintet. He himself said, 'I have always preferred chamber music and always will'.

Of the three early sonatas mentioned above, the cello sonata was the only one published. The other two remained in the possession of the Cras family.  Marie-Christine Millière, the violinist on this recording, was presented with the manuscript of the violin sonata. Her family had been friends of the Cras family ever since her father, as a young officer, had taken part in musical evenings with his admiral. This performance is thus a world premiere recording. The work is in three movements. The first struts out confidently in the opening bars. Soon the music becomes imbued with intensely lush lyricism. The piano is an equal partner in every respect. The Largo is refined and delicate, the rocking rhythms having the calming effect of a beguiling dreamscape. The finale, like the first movement, adopts a self-assured demeanour.

The String Trio is affable, good-natured and carefree. It neatly packs into four movements, its cyclical structure saluting Franck. It dates from 1926, and was conceived on board a warship. The first movement is animated and radiates a genial charm. An air of melancholy surrounds the slow movement, with Cras incorporating some of those exotic folk influences he picked up on his travels. Then comes a jaunty pizzicato movement with a feverish spring in its step; it's pure delight. An energetic and highly-charged finale rounds off proceedings.

The Quintet for violin, viola, cello, flute and harp is the high point on this remarkable disc. The influences of Debussy, Ravel and oriental exoticism permeate the score. It was composed in 1928 for the distinguished Quintette Instrumentale de Paris. Here, the marine bard truly infuses the music with reflections of the oceans and coastal shores. A joyful opener gives way to a sprightly scherzo-like movement. The slow movement is of more serious intent, reflective and considered. The finale is playful, frisky and lithe. Cras' scoring is the epitome of ingenuity and imagination and, by exploiting each instrument to the full, he suffuses the score with a vast range of tonal colour.

The performances are without fault, and showcase these delightful works to perfection. I must single out the Quintet, for the lightness and clarity of texture these players bring. I couldn't imagine this work better played. Forgotten Records provide a beautifully produced booklet with this release, with notes by Alexis Galpérine. It includes several photos of the composer and his family which are of interest.

For those wishing to explore the seafaring theme further, I’ll point you in the direction of a disc with the intriguing title Des Cordes Marines which I reviewed several months ago, featuring Cras’ String Trio, as well as chamber music by Roussel and Bonnal.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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