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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Concert for String Quartet, Violin and Piano Op. 21 [42.01]
Chanson perpétuelle Op. 37 [8.24]
Simón Gollo, Benjamin Sung, Ingrid Gerling (violin), Randolph Kelly (viola), Mark Kubata (cello), John Navacek (piano), Mariola Cantarero (soprano)
rec. 2019, Auditorio Manuel de Falla, Granada
IBS 62020 [50:26]

One can’t help but feel that Ernest Chausson must go down as one of those unfulfilled figures in music. He came to composition late, aged twenty-seven, having studied with Jules Massenet then César Franck who was his real musical father figure and died in a cycling accident at just forty-four. As a consequence, there is just a handful of works, many of which he felt dissatisfied with, probably due to his lack of personal confidence. Nevertheless, there are some great works in his limited oeuvre; I would suggest the Symphony in Bb and the two pieces under review here, especially the Concert which was written straight after the Symphony, was well received after its first performance in Brussels and has since been much admired.

As a follower of Franck and an early admirer of Wagner, Chausson had his enemies, but it seems that the Concert made him many friends despite its cyclical form, learned from Franck and so disliked by Gounod and his cronies. One gets the impression that Chausson found composition a challenge and that he often lacked fluency and, in his own words, often inspiration; however, given the logical flow of the Concert as in the song, the Symphony and in the late String Quartet, completed by his friend D’Indy, this is difficult to believe.

The only other recording with which I am able to make a comparison is on Hyperion (CDA66907) with Pascal Devoyan with the Chilingirian Quartet. This has the advantage of a major coupling, the Piano Quartet in A major, but they lack the sensitivity and beauty of phrasing heard on this new disc.

The format of the Concert is unique: violin and piano with a string quartet.  Controversially, it could be felt that there is a sense of a double concerto here with passages for the violin and pianist answered by the quartet or accompanied by them. Or, as a pupil of mine said, rather harshly, it’s a “limited orchestration awaiting the full scoring”. The work, dedicated to the great violinist Ysaÿe, falls into four movements lasting in all upwards of forty-five minutes.

The opening three-note figure is used throughout the first movement and recurs in the finale. This is mostly a sonata form movement typical of Chausson, being sometimes turbulent and sometimes dreamy. The very effective ‘Sicilienne’, which constitutes the second movement, is short and is captured here with a delightful lilt, more so than on the Hyperion disc, and is brought to a controlled but impassioned climax. The third movement is a ‘grave’ in D minor, which is rather foreboding in mood and has, I feel, some of the most anguished-stricken pages in all chamber music literature. The ominous first theme being paraphrased in a gigantic climax. This new performance brings it off brilliantly. The finale ‘très animé’ begins with a powerful scalic theme, again in D minor, but lightness and variety are captured in the several D major sections. This brings the whole work to a refined and beautiful conclusion, although Chausson wrote at the end of the score “another failure”.

The Chanson Perpétuelle dates from the year before Chausson’s untimely death. It is a setting of the symbolist poet Charles Cros and exists in three versions; the one heard here is for piano and string quartet. It is an intense and melancholy work but comes to a rapturous conclusion. I realise that the tempo of the piece is open to a certain interpretation and that Mariola Cantarero has an enviable CV but she seems unsuited to this piece, I find her overly obtrusive vibrato a real hurdle in the appreciation of Chausson’s achingly beautiful melodic lines, so despite the fact that I find the performance of the Concert utterly convincing and persuasive, for me the disc is rather spoiled by the performance of this wonderful song.

There is an excellent essay by Jane Vial Jaffe, well aimed at more general readers with just the right amount of detail. The booklet and disc are set in a firm cardboard casing. The recording is faultless.

Gary Higginson

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