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Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
La Flûte de Pan (1928) [13:36]
Quintet for piano, two violins, viola and cello (1922) [18:02]
Quintet for harp, flute, violin, viola and cello (1928) [21:41]
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano), Oxalys
rec. 2018, Studio 1, Flagey, Brussels
PASSACAILLE 1067 [69:00]

In common with Albert Roussel and Antoine Mariotte, Jean Cras 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. A contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, Duparc and Franck were also abiding influences. His travels brought him face to face with multifarious cultures, and these found their way into his music, which is exotic, colourful and harmonically refined. Breton folklore, in the shape of their songs and dances, found a route into his music, too. Sample the finale of the Piano Quintet and you'll see what I mean; it's all there.

La Flûte de Pan, composed in 1928, is cast in four sections and is scored for solo voice, a seven-note set of panpipes, and three stringed instruments. It's shot through with Eastern exoticism, hardly surprising as the composer was travelling around Algeria at the time of composition. The text is based on a poem by Lucien Jacques (1891-1961), its mystical leanings are an evocation of the god Pan, the choice of which assuaged the composer's cravings for classical Antiquity. Sophie Karthäuser (soprano) delivers a characterful and stylish performance. No texts are provided, which is regrettable.

The composer was commanding the destroyer Amiral Sénès when he wrote the Piano Quintet in 1922. His sea-faring travels obviously had a bearing on the work. Images of the open sea, shanties and exotic locations suffuse this life-enhancing score. Chugging engines usher in the first movement, very similar to the third movement of the String Trio. Hazy calm gives the slow movement a sleepy aspect. A scherzo-like third movement, again down in the engine room, precedes a gleeful finale. Are those waves I hear in the piano writing?

Composed at the instigation of the harpist Pierre Jamet, founder of the Quintette instrumental de Paris, the Quintet for violin, viola, cello, flute and harp of 1928 will appeal to devotees of Ravel's Introduction and Allegro. Indeed, the influences of Debussy and Ravel fully pervade the score. As for the unusual line-up of instruments, which Cras exploits to the full, Pierné, Koechlin Roussel, Schmitt, D'Indy and Ropartz had already set a precedent. The combination evokes bucolic landscapes and characters of Antiquity, subjects close to the composer's heart. It opens with the flute's sunny murmurings, against a backdrop of the harp’s glistening tendrils. A portrayed idyllic landscape permeates the entire work. The Animé which follows has quicksilver properties, whilst the slow movement offers time for reflection. In the finale, elfin glitter and lithe playfulness bring the piece to a thrilling close.

I've always found that the music of Jean Cras is never less than pleasing. Oxalys have done these works proud and they've been captured in superb sound to boot. For those who have yet to discover the composer's music, this release constitutes an ideal primer.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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