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Marius CONSTANT (1927-2004)
Turner (1961) [12:45]
Brevissima (1992) [10:11]
103 Regards dans l’eau (1981) [30:40]
Olivier Charlier (violin)
Riverside Symphony/George Rothman
rec. 2001/06, SUNY Purchase, New York.
DIVINE ART DDA25216 [64:36]

Marius Constant is one of those composers who, as the booklet notes for this release puts it, is “lamentably unsung”, but almost all of us will have heard at least some of his music - his authorship of the TV theme The Twilight Zone being just one of many little-known facts about this remarkable voice in 20th century music.
 
This disc comes with a neatly made short film, ‘formatted for computer playback’, in which the Riverside Symphony’s directors talk about their discovery of the works recorded here, and also has some fascinating archival footage of the composer. Constant states that he is not an intellectual composer, but one with an intuitive approach both in terms of content and form, a point of view with which many of us might feel a close connection.

Turner was inspired by Constant’s encounter with this English artist’s work in the Tate Gallery in London, and whose painting “Rain, Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway 1844” fleetingly adorns the cover for this release, appearing clipped and in reverse on the booklet. The work is in three movements, the first, Rain, Steam and Speed being by no means the expected portrait of an iron juggernaut ploughing through the countryside. There is mystery and poetry here, as well as some heavy action which hints at the avant-garde trends of the 1960s, but handling them with lightness and translucence of orchestral colour. The second, Autoportret, is reflected on the back cover of the CDs gatefold package, the “unflinching, even unflattering projection of ambivalence, doubt and sorrow” of the artist’s gaze being seen as his ‘tormented’ side. This and the final movement, Windsor avoid caricature even in their most angular moments, Constant’s skill in balancing lyrical and rhythmic tensions creating its own fascinating sonic canvas.

Constant was Romanian in origin, but like Dutilleux his orchestration always has an underlying Frenchness in its luminosity and a sense of restraint: of power held in reserve. Brevissima is a four-movement symphony “whose generative conceit is the super-compression of large form. The result is a unique homage to a grand tradition in ten riveting minutes.” There are moments of lush romantic sound here, alongside extreme contrasts of dynamics and mood. The atmosphere at times reminds me of Alban Berg in something like Wozzeck, where the drama is both underlying and constantly unfolding, full of chills and thrills and relatable human experience of one kind or another. In Constant’s own words, “the wager of Brevissima was to employ a massive sonority and sculpt it into a grand sonata form in a greatly reduced time frame; a discourse free of useless ornamentation, which… sought variety yet coherence, a narration surprising but convincing.” In this, Brevissima is supremely successful but quite dark, even with those passages of eloquent expressiveness and a slightly corny close.

103 Regards dans l’eau or 103 Visions of Water is a violin concerto that derives its inspiration from “poetic celebrations of water” from a variety of literary and scientific sources. There are 103 titled ‘movements’ not reproduced in the booklet, the work here divided into the tracks of its main four sections, marked only by tempo indications. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra is almost entirely constant throughout the work, though it is clear from the outset that the violin is also in a dialogue with itself, a characteristic which at times rubs off into the orchestra, but by no means always. This is a violin concerto that can be heard ‘along more familiar guideposts’, but it takes on the concerto form in an almost entirely different way to classical conventions. Constant’s detail is more in the micro than in the macro, which is not to say that we get wrapped up in anything too hard to decipher, but if there are any grand candenzas or orchestral tuttis then these only last for what seems like a few bars before the waterscape changes. The final Lent section has some breathtakingly beautiful passages and sonorities.

Superbly performed and recorded, this is a gem of a disc. The music demands time and attention, but rewards in equal measure. The excellent Riverside Symphony and its adventurous directors owe us our gratitude for bringing this rarely heard but fascinating repertoire to our attention.

Dominy Clements



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