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Corentin BOISSIER (b. 1995)
Glamour Concerto (2012; orch. 2016) [25:00]
Piano Sonata No 2, Appassionata (2015) [24:33]
Philip Marlowe Concerto (2013; rev. 2018) [19:57]
Valentina Seferinova (piano)
Ukrainian Festival Orchestra/John McLaughlin Williams
rec. 2019 Organ Hall Lviv, Ukraine; Studios Malambo Bois-Colombes, France
First Recordings

We’re all probably familiar with the phrase: ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’, and have occasionally revised an initial opinion about something, whether a person, place, or thing. This was certainly my experience with the present CD on the highly-enterprising Toccata Classics label.

Each month’s new releases comprise a mix of familiar, and unfamiliar names to choose from, but because we all tend to have fairly individual musical tastes, perhaps based on genre and historical perspective, the subsequent distribution works well. I well remember looking at the title of this present CD – ‘Two Piano Concertos and a Sonata’ – and since piano concertos are always my go-to first choice, I took a further look. The composer Corentin Boissier was not known to me, but was born in 1995, so, on the law of averages, would no doubt be writing in a contemporary idiom, and possibly something out of my comfort zone by choice. Then again, the titles of the two main works – Philip Marlowe Concerto, and Glamour Concerto respectively, sounded intriguing, and quite by chance made me think back to a CD I’d bought many years ago, featuring film scores by Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, and Alex North, entitled Hollywood Piano Concertos, and opening with ‘The Paradine Case’, after the eponymous 1947 film by Alfred Hitchcock. But we’ll return to this later.

So I clicked on the first of the available samples out of interest, but literally couldn’t believe my ears. The start was exactly like hearing the ‘Warsaw Concerto’ all over again, and as I then avidly played through the remaining samples, I quickly realised that the musical content of the disc was something quite different from what I’d initially imagined it to be.

At this juncture, and assuming that you might have already purchased the CD, you may well find that, while the booklet is most informative, it is possible that you may have a faulty one, where pages three and four refer to a completely different CD altogether. Toccata Classics are aware of this glitch, which happened during a recent print-run, but strangely did not affect every booklet printed. The label is more than happy to provide an amended booklet if needed, while the downloadable booklet, in pdf format available from their website, is correct, and probably the simplest solution. The first section of the brochure, written by musicologist and critic Walter Simmons contains more than sufficient biographical details, for those wishing to discover more about Boissier.

The second section of the brochure is written by the composer himself, where he takes the listener through the works on the CD, explaining, and seeking to justify his modus operandi and what he feels he has achieved here. As someone who took Composition as his Second Study in his student-days, I can personally resonate with his opening sentence, which, with the reader’s indulgence I’ll quote in its entirety: ‘Some critics cannot appreciate music that was composed in a style not deemed to be that of the composer’s own era’. That composer can then feel shunned for attempting to reunite with the values of music from former times, however effective, entertaining, and erudite, the final result might be. Boissier is simply postulating that surely any piece of music can be appreciated solely for its own intrinsic value – its beauty and stylistic consistency – even if the concept is adjudged to be from an earlier period in musical history. Boissier concludes by saying that the works on this new CD must be appreciated in ‘the spirit of Hollywood Film Music from the 1940s, and even includes the ‘The Paradine Case’ CD I’d mentioned above, which certainly could be considered an appropriate role model, and brings me back to where I started.

Boissier now goes on to write specifically about the music on the current CD., beginning with his Glamour Concerto, which appeared first for solo piano in 2012, before the current orchestral version arrived on the scene in 2016. According to Boissier, each of its three movements has a distinct programme: ‘Glamour appassionato’ suggests the story of a young man and woman meeting in New York, and falling in love – as you do – and is cast in what the composer describes as ‘free tri-thematic sonata form’, for which he then provides a short ‘road-map’ to explain how this pans out structurally and harmonically during the movement.

Boissier suggests that the second movement, ‘Manhattan Waltz-Romance’, takes the two lovers on a romantic dinner-date somewhere in a Manhattan restaurant, as witness its lyrical main waltz-theme, which becomes more and more densely orchestrated, as the couple fall more deeply in love. The last movement, ‘Spanish Lovers in Brooklyn’, is said to evoke a Hispanic neighbourhood in the New York borough, where the couple becomes one in body, as the increasingly passionate texture seeks to confirm. Boissier adds the following tempo indication here – Andante: Allegro all’espagnola – perhaps to ensure that the Spanish nature of the writing is conveyed, though I have to say, it is more ‘exotic-sounding’ than overtly Spanish, and while I can visualize the couple all loved-up in a darkened alcove, I could also picture them in the desert, riding off into the sunset, as I really don’t feel the Spanish element in the music is anywhere near potent enough.

The concerto is followed by a work for piano solo, Boissier’s Piano Sonata No 2, Appassionata, written in 2015, and which the composer describes as a ‘work that seeks to speak from the heart of the composer to the soul of the listener’. However, I felt it also exposes some weaknesses in Boissier’s musical arsenal, which made me think back to the music of fellow French composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Berlioz didn’t learn the piano as a boy, and received some musical instruction only on the flute and guitar, since it was hoped that he would subsequently enter the medical profession. As a consequence, it is often said that his main instrument was the orchestra, just as Chopin’s was the piano. While there is nothing to suggest that Boissier isn’t also an accomplished instrumentalist, composing seems to be his favoured musical activity, and from quite an early age.

Returning to the Sonata, Appassionata, if you look under the bonnet, harmonically-speaking it uses quite a limited chord-palette, where a large number of chords are just major or minor triads, and rarely more complex than Sevenths. A recurring harmonic fingerprint is his use of descending minor triads, which initially make for some interesting chord juxtapositions and modulations, until it becomes more of a habit, perhaps, than a feature. Suspensions, which usually create tensions as they are prepared, sounded, and then resolved, are rarely, if ever, encountered here, and the music does suffer from this omission. Boissier also tends to move on to another idea, rather than investigate the current one in more detail, something which I light-heartedly refer to as ‘The Chewing-gum Effect’ – once the taste has dissipated, there seems no point to continue, without popping in a fresh piece – not that I have ever wanted to indulge. Like Berlioz, Boissier is in his element when writing for orchestra, just as Chopin, for whom the opposite was actually the case, was the archetypical piano-composer, and as such might hopefully agree with my findings that, without an orchestra in tow, Boissier’s Piano Sonata No 2, is really in need of some significant pruning. It is nearly the same length as the Glamour Concerto, and nearly five minutes longer than the other piano concerto on the CD – some padding could well be excised, with little risk to its residual structural integrity.

The Philip Marlowe Concerto, written in 2013 and revised in 2018, pays homage to the music of the film noir of the 1950s and, of necessity, is more violent, staccato, and features a prominent use of the brass – woodwind, in fact, is not used at all. It is cast as three linked movements, and opens with a rhapsodic Allegro dramatico, where the more lyrical second theme, according to the composer, represents the first meeting of the detective with his ‘femme fatale’. The second movement is marked Lento and, according to the composer presents a dark passacaglia, featuring some interplay between solo trumpet and piano. The finale is marked Allegro feroce, tempo di toccata, and again, according to Boissier, displays ‘thematic, rhythmic, and motivic elements from the previous two movements all combined together until the final dramatic dénouement unfolds’ – or should I just say ‘shoot-out', without giving too much away?

The CD booklet then continues with the contents of an informative interview between the composer and Russian-born pianist, Anna Sutyagina, for Moving Classics TV, first published in June 2019. It’s an interesting read and does try to explain where Boissier is coming from, where he feels his musical style fits in, and how it is still relevant in the twenty-first century.

On his website, Boissier describes himself as a ‘Neoromantic Classical Composer’, as well as an ‘Orchestrator and Arranger’. What we can hear on the CD itself unquestionably confirms his undisputed skills in the latter two areas, as surely as if we were to do the same with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, written back in 1830.

But for me, the problem is the ‘Neoromantic Classical Composer’ epithet, which doesn’t quite ring true. Yes, according to one definition of ‘Neoromantic composer’ – those (composers) who lived in the 20th or 21st centuries, but composed in a 19th-century Romantic idiom – this would grant Boissier entrance to the ‘club’. But in that club he would rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ernst von Dohnányi, Gabriel Grovlez, Erich Korngold, and Alexander Moyzes, to name but a few, and I don’t really think he has the full credentials, at this juncture, to be offered full membership, at least as a composer.

However, returning to my trusty Hollywood Piano Concertos CD, I can certainly envisage Boissier more at home in the company of the likes of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, Richard Addinsell, Hubert Bath, Robert Docker, and Alex North, or later composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer. From the evidence to hand, I would describe Corentin Boissier both as an effective composer in the world of romantic film-music, and a gifted creator of inventively-orchestrated pastiches.

The highly-committed performances from the Ukrainian Festival Orchestra are very much at one with the composer’s intentions, with inspired American conductor, John McLaughlin Williams, constantly keeping them on their toes, and extracting the maximum pizazz from each section.

In Bulgarian pianist Valentina Seferinova, Boissier has a fine exponent to deal with the powerful style of writing, which frequently leans more towards the massive chordal writing in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, than work demanding anything like the intricate passage-work and pianism in a later Rachmaninov concerto. The absolutely first-rate recordings are most vivid and additionally add to the Boissier’s total credibility and overall appeal of his works.

Toccata Classics acknowledge that, there are many of us ‘unapologetic Romantics’ out there, a label I am more than happy to accept. However, the best plan would probably be to listen to as many sound samples you can find online, and then make your decision.

You could become instantly smitten by what you hear – or it might taste like your tea or coffee has been sweetened with honey, or molasses.

Philip R Buttall

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