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French Piano Rarities
Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
Étude retrouvée (1915) [4:12]
Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (‘Evenings Lit by the Burning Coals’) (1917) [2:24]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908–1992)
Morceau de lecture à vue (‘Sight Reading Exercise’) (1934) [1:53]
Des canyons aux étoiles… (‘From the Canyons to the Stars…’) (excerpts) (1974) IV. Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin (‘The White-browed Robin-Chat’) [4:23]
IX. Le Moqueur polyglotte (‘The Mockingbird’) [10:18]
La Fauvette passerinette (‘The Subalpine Warbler’) (1961) [11:01]
Pierre BOULEZ (1925–2016)
Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo (1944) [26:58]
12 Notations (1945) [10:04]
Une page d’éphéméride (‘A Calendar Page’) (2005) [4:33]
Maurice RAVEL (1875–1937)
Menuet in C sharp minor (1904) [0:59]  
Ralph van Raat (piano)
rec. 2018, Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands
NAXOS 8.573894 [77:41]

It is surely eccentric that one of my favourite pieces of Debussy does not feature in the ‘official’ canon of his works. Étude retrouvée (Recovered Study) was originally destined to be have been included in the two books of Études completed in 1915. The manuscript was unearthed by Roy Howat in 1977 and after a few minor edits, was published. It is entitled in the holograph ‘Pour les arpèges composés’ (For Composite Arpeggios). It has been suggested that it may have been first thoughts for the Étude of that name in the published edition (Book 2, no.5). On the other hand, there is no similarity between the two ‘studies’ except for the technical aims, key, and title. It is a bewitching piece that reveals Debussy’s love of, and debt to, Chopin’s music.

The second Debussy rarity is ‘Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon’ (Evenings Lit by the Burning Coals). This was written in 1917 and was dedicated to the composer’s coal merchant. The Great War was still in full progress and during the cold winter of 1916-17 fuel was hard to come by. Fortunately, Debussy’s coal merchant stepped up to the plate and supplied his household with the necessary. It is assumed that this doughty trader received ‘Les Soirs illuminés’ in thanks or as a payment. The manuscript was recovered only as recently as 2001. This music is refined and subtle with some self-referencing to ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir’ from Book 1 of the Préludes.  There are hints of café or night-club music in these pages. Perhaps Debussy was looking forward to happier days to come in Parisian society. Alas, it would appear to be the last piano work written by Debussy. 

Four pieces by Olivier Messiaen are included on this CD. The first is the ‘Morceau de lecture à vue’ (Sight Reading Exercise). This was composed whilst the composer was teaching at the École Normale de Musique in Paris and was used as part of the piano exam syllabus. Despite its workaday title, this is a magical creation. A straightforward, 6/8time signature is matched against a plethora of accidentals. Messiaen was to reuse the opening five-note motif in his massive Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944). It appeared there as the ‘Theme of Love’.

‘Le Cossyphe d’Heuglin’’ (The White-browed Robin-Chat) and ‘Moqueur polyglotte’ (The Mockingbird) are hardly rarities. In fact, they are the 4th and 9th ‘movements’ from Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) composed in 1974. That work is for piano and orchestra, but the two extracted sections are for piano alone.

On the other hand, ‘La Fauvette passerinette’ (The Subalpine Warbler) is real Messiaen jewel. Composed in 1961, it subsequently disappeared. The holograph was rediscovered in the composer’s files by Peter Hill in 2012.  This may have been intended for a second cycle of Catalogue d’oiseaux. At eleven minutes this is a considerable piece. It is possible to regard this musical depiction of spring as a toccata or moto perpetuo. The work is characterised by virtuosic piano writing, syncopation, and sheer joie de vivre. The principal difference between ‘La Fauvette passerinette’ and the seven books of the Catalogue d’oiseaux is the composer’s successful attempt at allowing the ‘birdsong’ to create the harmony, rather than imposing the birdsong onto a ‘preconceived’ harmonic background.

Ralph van Raat has included three works by the former enfant terrible of French music, Pierre Boulez. First up, is the huge Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo (1944) written when the composer was only 19 years old. This was never performed in public and was later withdrawn. However, Boulez did not destroy it, but donated the manuscript to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland.  Listeners who know Boulez’ later music may be surprised at just how immediately approachable this piece is. Composed before his adoption of integral serialism (where every aspect of the music is derived from the tone-row, including melody, dynamics, and rhythm), it looks towards Bartok and Messiaen for inspiration. Despite the obvious modernism of this work, there is an underlying Romanticism that would become anathema to Boulez’s compositional style. As it progresses, the composer’s personal flair begins to assert itself. The Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo is one of my surprise discoveries of 2020 so far.

Notations (1945) was written only months later, yet the mood is completely different. Boulez had been introduced to Webern’s music and it clearly had a major impact. The vast sweep of the Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo has disappeared to be replaced by tightly constructed miniatures. Every ‘Notation’ in this collection is exactly twelve bars long and makes use of the same tone-row. It is a masterclass in how to create variety of mood and texture using serialism. Each is completely different in emotion and style, despite the use of the same basic musical material. Messiaen is in evidence in these pages, as well as occasional nods toward Debussy and Ravel.

Pierre Boulez composed ‘Une page d’éphéméride’ (A Calendar Page) in 2005 as an ‘educational’ exercise for piano students. It is, as the liner notes say, a ‘gem.’ Despite being just under five minutes in duration, it contains a diverse range of musical events. These include free timed sections fore and aft, as well as a rapid toccata-like middle section and ‘thunderous basses.’ Typically, it balances fast and slow music, sometimes coming to a complete halt and displaying diverse textures. Boulez likened the music to fish swimming in an aquarium. It is a good allusion.

These three enjoyable works by Pierre Boulez are ‘entry level’ into his considerable musical achievement.

Maurice Ravel’s Menuet in C sharp minor lasts for a mere 59 seconds, yet it is packed full of beautiful musical episodes. It was written on the back cover of a practice book belonging to his onetime pupil, the French composer and pianist, Maurice Delage (1879-1961). It is not known whether this miniature was written as an exercise for the pupil or perhaps the teacher’s own delight. What is certain is that this tiny gem encapsulates his genius. This is not a fragment, but a wholly formed piece complete with climax and perfect balance of harmony, melody and presenting tonal ambiguity between E major and minor. 

The performances by Ralph van Raat, the ideal recording, the choice of music and the presentation of these French rarities are all superb. I cannot fault anything on this disc. The liner notes are written by the pianist and make essential reading for the listener who wants to understand the music on this excellent and often incredibly exciting and beautiful CD.

John France

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