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Albéric MAGNARD (1865-1914)
Ouverture, Op. 10 [11:38]
Chant funèbre, Op. 9 [12:03]
Hymne à la justice, Op. 14 [13:34]
Hymne à Vénus, Op. 17 [13:30]
Suite d’orchestre dans le style ancien, Op. 2 [14:29]
Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg / Fabrice Bollon
rec. 2017-19, Rolf-Böhme-Saal, Konzerthaus, Freiburg im Breisgau; SWR Studio, Baden-Baden, Germany
NAXOS 8.574084 [65:30]

Anyone outside France who has heard of Albéric Magnard will probably know two things about him: that he is most famous as a writer of symphonies, and that he died tragically if heroically whilst defending his farm against German soldiers in 1914. Here are other salient biographical facts that emerge from Pierre Carrive’s excellent – and well translated – booklet notes: his father was the editor of the leading daily newspaper Le Figaro, his mother committed suicide when he was four, he chose d’Indy above Franck as his teacher, and he composed only 21 published works, including four symphonies and three operas. Of the operas, Bérénice and Guercoeur are revived once in a blue moon, and the latter has been recorded under Michel Plasson; but the symphonies are rather better known, at least on record. There are complete cycles are available by Michel Plasson, Jean-Yves Ossonce (review), Thomas Sanderling (review of Nos. 2 and 4) and now Fabrice Bollon and his Freiburgers (Naxos 8.574082 and 8.574083).

This disc is the third and presumably final instalment of these forces’ survey of Magnard’s purely orchestral output. None of the five pieces is here recorded for the first time, but they are certainly all rarities. They have only once before appeared together on the same disc, recorded some years ago by Mark Stringer and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and now available only as a download (review). Between them, the five works very much straddle the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, not just chronologically (all date from between 1892 and 1904) but also stylistically. As Carrive helpfully points out, two of them – the overture and suite – “are based on the traditional forms that were more or less mandatory testing grounds for many aspiring composers”, whereas the other three “resemble tone poems and were inspired by more personal preoccupations”.

To my ear, the more traditionally conceived works are the weakest. The Ouverture (1895), for which no particular theatrical or other context seems to be known, is in more or less straightforward sonata form, but otherwise never seems 100% certain what it wants to be or whither it wants to go. Its rather stop-start structure (at least as recorded here) is alternately busy and dreamy, and its tunes are pleasant without being in any way memorable. The Suite d’orchestre dans le style ancien (1892) is never less than enjoyable listening, but treats its pre-Classical dance forms in a way that is very much of its time. The pieces are imaginatively scored, especially for the woodwinds, and sometimes introduce an anachronistic but invigorating late-romantic Schwung – most notably in the longest movement, innocently headed “Menuet: tranquillo”. But to most modern ears they will sound pretty ponderous, whether those ears are familiar with historically informed performance practice or, more relevant, with such superficially similar undertakings as Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. Both of those re-imaginings of the French Baroque, Ravel’s in particular, are frankly in a completely different league.

When Magnard moves into the rather more subjective world of the late-romantic tone poem, he seems more consistently comfortable. His Hymne à la justice (1902), composed in the light of the Dreyfus Affair with its seedily fin-de-siècle mix of corruption and antisemitism, is a strong and stirring piece. A roughly contemporary synopsis by Gaston Carraud, Magnard’s first biographer, gives a good idea of what you get: “In the first idea we hear, in turn, the oppressive nature of injustice and a sorrowing call for justice [an eloquent clarinet solo, N.H.]. Brutally cast down, the victim lifts his eyes towards the unattainable ideal. With a lamenting cry that leads to greater persecution, he sees the soft light fading away, but just as violence returns more powerfully than ever, justice bursts out in a triumphant blaze of glory.” As these notes imply, the piece is a modified sonata structure with plenty of contrasts and a radiantly positive ending. But, unlike for example in the Ouverture, all the elements seem to belong and to make immediate sense, enabling Magnard to construct a genuinely powerful and, yes, symphonic argument.

The earlier Chant funèbre (1895), actually as much a slow processional piece as a song, has a still more personal origin, namely the death of Magnard’s father. Their relationship had been extremely difficult, not least because – if Carrive is to be believed – the composer blamed his father for his mother’s death. That might help explain why the work’s atmosphere seems tinged with a good deal of regret, as well as of sorrow. Certainly, even if it is a bit long for its thematic material, the Chant is a work of palpably heartfelt sincerity which makes quite an impact on the listener.

Finally, there is the 1904 Hymne à Vénus, Magnard’s tribute, it is believed, above all to the fulfilling marital love he enjoyed with his wife Julia. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first epithet that came to mind when listening to this piece was ‘sub-Tristan’; and, whilst I know that is a simplistic and rather cheap criticism, I have to say I could not persuade myself it was inapt. Sure, the influence is Tristan as channelled by d’Indy, perhaps Chausson, perhaps Mahler, but it is Tristan nonetheless. That said, the Hymne à Vénus is an engaging work that runs a wide gamut of emotions and has some effective episodes. For example, a few minutes in there is a passionately animated section whose subject-matter is surely the same as that of the opening bars of Der Rosenkavalier; it relaxes into a shimmering, flute-led passage of almost bucolic tenderness.

So, then, what we have is a collection of well-wrought, very well-orchestrated and sometimes highly distinguished French orchestral music from the time just before Impressionism came and largely silenced its regnant late-Romantic, post-Wagnerian idiom. Performances, recording and price are all fine. The Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg may not, perhaps, have the world’s most voluptuous violin section, but it is a sensitive, well-drilled ensemble from whom Bollon draws playing of real commitment. In music that can be thickly scored, I sometimes wished the recording were a little more lucidly analytical and a little less resonantly atmospheric than it is; but that too is a minor problem.

So the only question for would-be purchasers to answer is whether they want the repertoire. Dedicated Francophiles need not hesitate; and the sheerly curious will find plenty of interest. Anyone after a single ‘sampler’ disc of Magnard, however, would really be better advised to invest in a recording of some of the symphonies, most obviously Bollon’s new one of the Third and Fourth (8.574082). Overall, these do his reputation a greater degree of justice than do the shorter pieces recorded here.

Nigel Harris

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