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Julien-François ZBINDEN (b. 1917)
Trois preludes pour piano, Op. 4 (1944-46) [5:06]
Jazz-sonatine pour piano, Op. 11 (1949-50) [8:55]
Concerto da camera pour piano et orchestre à cordes, Op. 16 (1950-51) [15:11]
Quatre solitudes pour piano, Op. 17 (1951) [11:50]
Plaun la Greina pour piano (Trois images helvétiques, Op. 65) (1975) [4:34]
Méditation sur le nom de G.E.R.B.E.R. pour piano, Op. 90 (1998) [4:48]
Jazzific 59-16 pour jazz-group et orchestre à cordes, Op. 28 (1958) [13:53]
Concerto de Gibralta pour piano et fanfare (1959) [5:48] (3)
Julien-François Zbinden (piano)
Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne/Victor Dezarzens (op. 16)
Ensemble de musique légère et orchestre à cordes de la Radio Suisse Romande/Jean-Marie Auberson (op. 28)
Ensemble Romand d’Instruments de Cuivre (E.R.I.C.)/Roger Volet (Gibralta)
rec. 1951-1998, Swiss radio recordings
GALLO CD-1403 [70:14]

At the time of writing this review, the Swiss composer and Jazz pianist Julien-François Zbinden is very much alive and kicking at the grand old age of 102. He studied piano in Lausanne and Geneva and also took lessons in composition with René Gerber. From 1947 he worked as a recording manager for Radio Suisse Romande in Lausanne, then in 1956 became head of its music department. He's been the recipient of several distinguished prizes including the Henryk Wieniawski Composition Prize in Warsaw (1956). In 1993 he received the Gold Medal of the City of Lausanne, and to date he is an honorary member of the association Les Amis de Maurice Ravel. He has about 100 compositions to his name, including stage works, five symphonies, concertante works, solo piano, chamber and vocal music. Listening to his music, I can report that it is, for the most part, tonally orientated, and spiced with influences of jazz and Neoclassicism. Arthur Honegger also lurks surreptitiously in the background.

The Concerto da camera (1950–51) for piano and strings was begun in 1950 and completed a year later. This rewarding performance was taped in September 1962, where Zbinden is ably supported by Victor Desarzens and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. In three movements, the opener is virtuosic, extrovert and exuberant. The meditative ponderings of the soloist in the Adagio are gently buttressed by dreamy orchestration. All is capped off with a vigorous, animated finale.

Zbinden pours his lifelong love of jazz into the scintillating Jazzific 59-16 for jazz-group and string orchestra. The work is in three sections with the following subtitles: Bars for Hines, Blues for Ellington and Beats for Armstrong. It was written in 1958. It involves both a group of classical instrumentalists and a group of jazz musicians. The latter consists of three saxophones (alto, tenor and baritone), two trumpets, one trombone and a rhythm section composed of a double bass, a battery and a pair of bongos. I hear Gershwin and Bernstein in this exhilarating score. For me, it’s the highlight of the disc.

The Concerto de Gibraltar of 1959 is scored for solo piano and wind orchestra and it's the Ensemble Romand d’Instruments de Cuivre (E.R.I.C.), under the inspirational direction of Roger Volet, who do the honours. It’s a delightful score, with a sun-kissed Mediterranean flavour, shot through with smoky exoticism. Brilliant scoring and impressive virtuosity from the soloist cannot fail to win you over.

Of slightly less interest are the solo piano works, of which a selection is included. All are short pieces, and they are certainly not as lyrically munificent as the orchestral pieces. The Quatre Solitudes, Plaun la Greina (from Trois images helvétiques) and Méditation sur le nom de G.E.R.B.E.R (a 90th birthday homage to his teacher Réné Gerber) are perhaps the hardest nuts to crack, being angular, dissonant and chromatically daring. My favorite is the Jazz-sonatine of 1949/50. In two sections, it opens with a Gershwinesque Blues, and is followed by Improvisation. As the latter’s title suggests, it showcases Zbinden's consummate improvisatory skill in the medium of jazz. The music sounds as though its evolving on the wing.

These valuable recorded radio documents span almost fifty years, and the sound quality, even in the early 50s airings, is extremely good. Unfortunately, the booklet notes are in French only, which is something of drawback. As for the music, for the most part you will want to luxuriate in these imaginative scores.

Stephen Greenbank

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