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Philippe GAUBERT (1879-1941)
Flute Sonata No. 1 in A major (1917) [16:06]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Noël en Picardie (1914) [12:02]
Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872-1924)
Sous les Lauriers roses (1919) [19:57]
Philippe GAUBERT (1879-1941)
Médailles Antiques (1916) [10:06]
Amaury Breyne (piano)
Pierre Pouillaude (flute)
Yasmine Hammani (violin)
rec. 2017, Auditorium of the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Départemental de Tourcoing (Nord) France
Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre - Volume XXVII
HORTUS 727 [58:15]

Hortus's remarkable survey of music written in response to the Great War shows no sign of abating; here it reaches Volume 27. I have rather dipped in and out of the series. This is the 6th volume I have reviewed for MusicWeb. Although that represents less than a quarter of the entire collection to date, the quality of these disc in terms of both artists, repertoire, engineering and presentation remains remarkably high. Volume 27 is titled "Catharsis - in the Health Service". This slightly clumsy translation references the fact that the three featured composers served in World War I: Gaubert and Ibert were stretcher-bearers, ), de Séverac a hospital orderly. Ibert's piano work Noël en Picardie relates directly to the War, but all of the other works have no immediate/direct association or seeming response to it. All four can be found included in other recitals, usually part of one-composer surveys, but they are all new to me. I cannot, then, make any direct comparisons except with excerpts streamed from the Web with all the audio compromises that brings.

Again, as with many of the previous discs, Hortus have employed French artists and period instruments. Here it is a 1906 Steinway which still sounds very good but without the big-boned 'glamour' of a really modern instrument. The liner notes make no reference to the flute or violin played on this recording, which would have been interesting to know. The notes are quite odd. For example, it it not it clear that we are given Gaubert's Flute Sonata No. 1 in A major (he wrote three) and neither dowe get the movement markings (Modere - Allegretto vivo / Lent - Allegretto moderato - Tempo I / Allegro moderato). Instead, we get poorly translated academe such as this: " all of these pieces the principle of the relay (at times chiasmatic) between the piano and flute is constant. It sometimes applies only to the head of the motive, undergoing metamorphoses affecting the pitch range and endings (closed/open or open/closed, like so many suspensive questions), and extends into fairly limited developmental areas." This is not the only part of the notes that leave me simply bemused; here is another favourite: "the apophonic process in the writing is yet present here, for each cell is subjected to several consecutive manipulations." Curious, because in this series the quality and content of the notes thus far have been very high.

From the passing streamed comparisons I have made – which actually reinforced an impression I had quite in isolation – pianist Amaury Breyne and flautist Pierre Pouillaude favour a quite intimate reflective interpretation of this Sonata. As mentioned, the Steinway on this recording is not as full-toned as today’s instruments. Likewise, Pouillaude's flute is beautifully poised and pure but without the robust full tone favoured by some more internationally renowned players. But it strikes me that this approach works very well by emphasising the pastoral and lyrical qualities of the work. One interesting fact pointed out in the notes is that the composer's own recordings as a flautist show him to be a player who valued evenness of tone and a smooth legato across the entire range. I am in no position to directly compare the two player's techniques but Pouillaude does favour a smooth and very lyrical style. This does come at the expense of any innate drama the work may contain but unlike many of the works in this extensive series, the Sonata here could almost be perceived as the antithesis to war or conflict; even the movement titles given above imply moderation and an avoidance of the extreme. The central movement is quite beautiful and suits these performers' style to perfection: a languorous flute over a gently pulsing accompaniment. The balance is very good and the recording catches the slight edgy twang of the old Steinway very effectively. As I say, this is not a work I have heard before. I can imagine a performance which seeks greater differentiation between the movements and also one with a wider dynamic range. My sole criticism of Pouillaude's playing is that he tends to stay in a warmly mellow dynamic perhaps for too much of the work.

There follow two solo piano pieces. The first is the work on the disc I enjoyed the most: Jacques Ibert's Noël en Picardie. As mentioned earlier, this is the only work on this disc that overtly references the War during which it was written. It is Ibert's fate to remain less well-known than he probably deserves. His minor fame rests on the greatly entertaining but deliberately slight Divertissement. That he could write on a larger and deeper scale is evident in this twelve-minute piano tone-poem. The work is dominated by the sound and texture of tolling bells. Whether this meant to evoke church bells celebrating the birth of Christ is unclear, but Ibert's landscape is powerfully barren and chilled. The opening section of the work evokes this formless, almost hopeless place with little structure or definite sense of rhythm or harmony; the dynamics are kept to a frozen p to ppp. Then around the half-way mark Ibert introduces a rocking siciliana rhythm which in turn becomes a rather beautifully sombre chorale. The distant bells return and gradually they build to a grand, if still not joyful, climax. Another work I have not heard before, available on other recital discs. Amaury Breyne paces the work very well. I particularly enjoyed his playing of the opening pages and his ability to layer the feeling of bells near and far in the musical landscape. As ever with this Steinway, for the ear used to the near-limitless power of newer instruments, there is a sense the dynamic of the closing pages being curtailed and the tone of the instrument hardening under pressure. But the counter to that is an undeniable sense of period and appropriateness to the sound it makes.

The second piano work is a colourful piece of musical tourism. Déodat de Séverac's Sous les Lauriers roses is subtitled "Carnival evening on the Catalan coast". Another odd omission in the notes is that they make no reference at all to de Séverac's involvement in the War. Given this entertaining postcard was written after the War, again with no apparent link to the conflict, I do wonder why this specific work was chosen in the context of this recital. The score can be viewed on the IMSLP website. It is a dense and skilfully written piece, which the composer titled a "Suite in one Movement". The score reveals itself to be full of descriptive headings and detailed instructions to the player. Quite rightly the liner notes point towards several of the composer's friends – Chabrier, Albeniz and Charles Bordes – whose style this music both homages and emulates; Charles Bordes is unknown to me but clearly he was interested in music of the Basques region. There also is a passing nod to Ravel. At nearly twenty minutes, this is a substantial and colourful work. I enjoyed Breyne's suitably free and effective handling of the complex rhythms and textures of the work. This is particularly true of those Iberian-inflected rhythms that so seem to fascinate French composers especially when writing 'Spanish' music. It is so important to get the sensuous sway into the playing. Breyne does this very well indeed. Again, other versions exist which I do not know but this strikes me as a idiomatic and colourful musical postcard album, performed with skill and sensitivity.

As is the closing trio, again by Gaubert, where pianist and flautist are joined by violinist Yasmine Hammani. In agreement with the other two artists, Hammani produces a beautiful measured tone, is technically secure, but does not seek to project an outsize musical personality. Again this seems completely apposite for the music in question. This combination of instruments is not that common but it works well here. The notes date the work as 1916 and the title of Médailles Antiques is given the subtitle Nymphs at the Fountain - Dances. When writing reviews about this kind of music, you want to try to avoid the easy clichés about Arcadian Pastoral reveries and the like. Still, there comes a point when they simply cannot be avoided, and this is a case here. This is a very lovely piece written in that archetypal style of rapturous, sunlit innocence that seems to chime with many French composers in particular at that time. Given the date of composition, you will struggle long and hard to hear any shadows of War cast across this lithe and gently sensual music. All credit to the artists and the Hortus production for producing a performance that captures this style so well.

So, all in all, another impressive addition to this ongoing series. My only observation is that with the exception of the Ibert, none of the music seems to have any emotional or spiritual connection to the Great War, except for the coincidence of the composers' serving in the medical corps. I suppose "Catharsis" in the title of the disc implies a cleansing of the emotions, and that is why the music is superficially at least so untroubled. I do like the Hortus 'house' presentation for this series; French military grey and blue, with archive photographs enhancing the booklet. I may have enjoyed discovering other music and composers on other volumes more – I am thinking of Cras or Durosoir – but that is not to diminish the care and calibre of the performances here.

Nick Barnard


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