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Gilbert AMY (b. 1936)
Piano Concerto (2005) [25:22]
Cello Concerto (2000) [29:58]
Jean-François Heisser (piano)
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Orchestre de Chambre Nouvelle-Aquitaine/Julien Leroy (piano)
Orchestre de Paris/ Gilbert Amy (cello)
rec. 2006, Salle Pleyel, Paris (cello); 2019, L'Auditorium de l'Opéra National de Bordeaux (piano)

A student of Messiaen and Milhaud among others at the Paris Conservatoire, Gilbert Amy’s early compositions were inevitably influenced by Boulez in particular and by Darmstadt-style post-serialism in general. Readers who take a peek at a chronological list of Amy’s oeuvre won’t need the likes of me to tell them that though, given the preponderance of single word titles that reek of the era; Mouvements (for 17 instruments, 1958- his breakthrough piece), Épigrammes (solo piano – 1961), Relais (brass quintet -1969) etc etc etc. Over the years I have heard a few of these early works, and to my ears at least they do sound rather generic and forgettable. Perhaps the most interesting is the concertante violin piece Trajectoires from 1966, a colouristically rich opus which, although seeming perfectly characteristic of his music of this period, and despite its contrasts between extreme stasis and agitated dynamism typical of the zeitgeist of its mid-sixties provenance, arguably hints at the somewhat mellower, more conventional works on the new disc. Stephen Barber reviewed an earlier Hortus disc of Amy’s chamber works spanning the three decades before the new millennium. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t especially moved by it, but Amy remains a highly regarded figure across the Channel where his name features more regularly as a composer on concert programmes and recordings than my colleague might have imagined.

Both concertos presented here are rather fine in my view and each constitutes an apt foil for the other. In fact this account of the Cello Concerto is already familiar to me, having appeared on a 2006 Harmonia Mundi disc which sadly went rather under the radar, a contemporary concertante showcase for Jean-Guihen Queyras which also included Bruno Mantovani’s simultaneously po-faced and inflated concerto and Philippe Schoeller’s peculiar The Eyes of the Wind (HMC 901973).

But the new issue opens with the Piano Concerto. The downward cascade with which the work opens at once suggests a mature composition and the familiarity of a settled style. The solo writing in the rapid, buoyant opening movement is agreeably fluent and slips easily beneath the expert fingers of Jean-François Heisser. Amy’s orchestral writing is fresh and colourful, the ubiquitous percussion used as a functional servant to its musical argument rather than for any tokenistic shock value. Most interesting of all is the solo material which absolutely dominates the panel. It’s arresting and florid, often pretty and seems unusually certain of its ultimate destination. From time to time Amy’s sound-world superficially hints at Messiaen, at Ravel or even jazz; but spiritually by now his the music is closer in spirit to younger Frenchmen like Dalbavie or Connesson than to the likes of Boulez or if one listens again to Trajectoires to Xenakis. The central movement is reflective without being ‘slow’ in the traditional sense. Passages of intense string texture unfold gradually and project a grave beauty which seems at odds with the unexpectedly jagged percussion outbursts. Heisser navigates his way through this contradictory, somewhat disarming material. It does its own thing and follows its heart. Imperceptibly, the final movement materialises – it’s the length of its predecessors combined – and harp and tuned percussion (marimba, tubular bells) provide glittering, astronomical allusions. Winds and brass move in and out of focus. The colourful, rhythmically diverse backdrop holds few terrors for the fine Orchestre de Chambre Nouvelle-Aquitaine, a polished, sympathetic outfit on the evidence of this recording. A brief moment of string repose at 6:22 augurs music of greater delicacy and finesse, exposing inter alia delicious textures of muted trumpet, and a likeable stop/start feel to the piece that survives until its conclusion. There is a real warmth and humanity in this music that somehow eluded much of the post-serialism-by-numbers of Amy’s earlier output. Under the focused direction of Julien Leroy, the Piano Concerto seems compact and convincing. Subsequent repetitions bear this out. The Hortus sound is appropriately full-on and warm.

I know Amy’s Cello Concerto already and play the old Harmonia Mundi disc from time to time. In formal terms at first hearing, the division of its half hour duration into seven episodes of varied weight and heft may seem a bit chaotic and dishevelled but in fact there is a surprising coherence to this concerto that yields a powerful, rewarding sense of continuity for the listener which only increases with greater familiarity. Amy’s orchestration is again attractively deft and varied. The opening solo gesture will inevitably recall Lutoslawski’s concerto but equally the cello’s upward swoops point to models from even further east, Takemitsu (to whose memory the work was written) perhaps or even more pertinently Isang Yun. The Cello Concerto truly finds its feet in the second Allegro giusto section (at 6.25 the longest). This astringent music is defiantly jagged and modern, to a greater degree than the Piano Concerto, but at no stage could one describe Amy’s imaginative orchestral effects as contrived or wilful; they coalesce to form a singular sonic weave which is a perfect match for the strange arc of the piece. The mesmerising, ethereal third section, marked Aérien, suspendu floats in the haze and truly seems to stop time. Queyras’ playing is songful in its astronomical demands; he produces some truly ravishing sounds. The Harmonia Mundi engineers performed miracles with this piece whose delicacies must have been difficult to balance, yet which emerge with pinpoint clarity. The central Solo is a taxing cadenza in which Amy playfully refers to the earlier content. It dissipates into a shimmering episode (Assez vite) blending hypnotic dance figures with intense and assertive pleading from the cello, and which resolves in a solemn rising figure. This leads to the luminous textures which open the penultimate panel (Lent, solonnel), delineated by shards of puckish percussion, strummed sounds (especially a lissom harp); these gestures combine to form a rather odd processional in which the sighing cello tentatively participates, before a febrile unpredictable finale rushes headlong to the finish line and to an understated conclusion involving a single chord on the celesta.

This necessarily detailed exegesis of a work I’ve only really experienced holistically beforehand has only increased my admiration for Amy’s craftsmanship and invention. Nor does Queyras hold back: he plays it for all its worth, treating its considerable technical challenges merely as structural supports for its clear-sighted musical argument. It is a very different piece from the Piano Concerto which it certainly complements. It should be apparent by now that there is much in both scores that listeners will find sonically ‘beautiful’, but unlike some composers Amy knows where to stop. Contemporary Francophiles will not hesitate; many other listeners may be surprised to find much to like.

Richard Hanlon

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