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French Music for String Orchestra
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Sur les flots lointains Op. 130 (1933) [5:22]
Guillaume LEKEU (1870-1894)
Adagio pour cordes (1891) [3:39]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Hymne pour dixtuor à cordes (1920) [7:07]
Jacques CASTÉRÈDE (1926-2014)
Symphonie No. 1, pour orchestra a cordes (1952) [23:02]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Sarabande in E Op. 93 (1892) [4:37]
Symphonie No. 2, pour cordes avec trompette ad libitum (1941) [26:06]
Ciconia Consort/Dick van Gasteren
rec. 2018, Westvest Kerk, Schiedam, The Netherlands

When one thinks of music for string orchestra, from the English-speaking world Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia come immediately to mind. From the German-speaking world there is Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Strauss’s Metamorphosen. But when it comes to the French-speaking world, I cannot easily think of familiar works. On this disc, certainly only one work, the Honegger symphony, can be considered at all well known.

It is, nevertheless, an interesting collection. We begin with Charles Koechlin’s Sur les flots lointains. Koechlin was enormously prolific. He was much admired as an orchestrator. He scored the orchestral version of Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande and helped Debussy with that of Khamma. However, few of his own works have become established. Perhaps the best known is the cycle of symphonic poems based on Kipling’s Jungle Book (RCA Red Seal 74321 845 962). More recently, a substantial selection from his orchestral works was recorded by Heinz Holliger (review). The work here is a short symphonic poem, very atmospheric in rather a Wagnerian way.

The name of Guillaume Lekeu would be much more familiar had he not had the misfortune to die at the age of twenty four. A pupil of Franck and then of d’Indy, he would, along with such figures as Chausson and Magnard, have become another member of the Franckist school, one I find very attractive. His best-known work is his violin sonata, which is often recorded; we have also have his complete works (review). This Adagio comes very much from the world of Wagner and Franck. It starts like a passage from Parsifal and indeed is steeped in gloom, though there are two passages which are more serene and lightly scored. It is, nonetheless, impressive.

The Swiss-born but Paris-based Honegger appears here with two works. The early Hymne, like the two predecessors here, also has a sombre opening, which started making me think we were having too much of a good thing, but Honegger’s work has more astringent harmony. Over a menacing tread in the bass a winding chromatic line gradually unfolds.

Jacques Castérède was a new name to me. He won the Prix de Rome, had a respected career as a teacher and composed prolifically. This symphony for strings appears to have been his first orchestral work. It is in four movements. The first sounded to me like a pale imitation of the fugal first movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The following scherzo is alternately fierce and playful, with cross-rhythms and syncopation rather in the Walton manner. The slow movement is troubled and questing, and the finale brisk. Although this is a perfectly competent work, I found it not very interesting and much the weakest work here.

Saint-Saëns is of course very well-known. This Sarabande, apparently his only work for strings, shows his customary skill and charm and is very well crafted. It is not profound, nor tries to be, and is a welcome contrast to some of the gloom earlier on the disc.

Finally we have Honegger’s second symphony, a war-time work, which, along with the following Symphonie liturgique, reflects the anguish of those times, during which he remained in occupied Paris. The second symphony is a powerful work in three movements, mostly troubled and despairing, but towards the end of the third movement a melody like a that of a Bach chorale enters on a trumpet to provide a hopeful ending. I first heard this work, along with its successor, in a famous recording by Karajan, happily still available (DG 4474352). It has in its time been much recorded, though not so much recently. It was good to hear it again.

The Ciconia Consort is an ensemble of young Dutch players, under the experienced guidance of Dick van Gasteren, whose conducting career started off by being Haitink’s assistant in Amsterdam. They bring to their work the enthusiasm of youth together with precise ensemble and a real feeling for the rich harmonies of the Franckist works here. This is their first recording. I hope they will continue exploring the string orchestra repertoire, particularly of lesser-known works. The recording is natural, with a nice bloom on it. The booklet notes, in Dutch and slightly peculiar English, are adequate. This is a very worthwhile issue.

Stephen Barber



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