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Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
String Quartet No 1 in A minor (1939) [18:10]
Romance in A major for violin and piano (1901) [5:23]
String Quartet No 2 in F major (1943) [24:11]
Variations chantantes sur un air ancien, for cello and piano (1905) [4:11]
Improvisations sur des airs irlandais, for cello and piano (edition 1911) [3:29]
Quintet for piano and strings in F-sharp minor (1917-1922) [26:05]
Dania Tchalik (piano), Quatuor Tchalik
rec. December 2019, La Seine Musicale, Île Seguin, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris

This new Alkonost Classic album focuses on chamber music by Reynaldo Hahn, a composer who has been overlooked since his death in 1947. In fact, his name is missing from most of my music reference books. In my view, much of Hahn’s work is dismissed as mere salon music. Thankfully, there has in recent decades been a revival of interest in Hahn’s music and the fiftieth anniversary of Hahn’s death in 1997 produced a number of welcome recordings, most containing the mélodies for which he is best known. 

For that revival, we must be grateful to key contributor Palazzetto Bru Zane, the cultural foundation which aims to rediscover and promote internationally French musical heritage of the long nineteenth century (1780-1920). In 2019, I reviewed Hahn’s complete mélodies sung by baritone Tassis Christoyannis, and a few months ago the ‘world premiere’ recording of Hahn’s opera L’Île du rêve (Isle of Dreams). Only today, I received the first complete recording of Hahn’s musical comedy Ô mon bel inconnu (O My Handsome Stranger). All three sets have been released on Bru Zane.

Unquestionably, music is the Tchalik family business. The members of the Quatuor Tchalik - Gabriel Tchalik, Louise Tchalik (violins), Sarah Tchalik (viola) & Marc Tchalik (cello) - and pianist Dania Tchalik are all siblings. Another family connection is that their father, Mikhaïl Tchalik, is both founder of the Alkonost Classic label and the sound engineer for these Hahn studio recordings. Making its debut in 2013, the Quatuor Tchalik gained international attention in 2018 by winning the 13th International Mozart Competition in Salzburg, taking both first prize in the string quartet category and the special prize for best interpretation of a Mozart quartet.

In 2019, Bru Zane commenced a major retrospective of Hahn. As part of the project at the Bru Zane 2019 autumn festival in Venice, the Quatuor Tchalik and pianist Dania Tchalik came together to perform three of Hahn’s chamber works. With Bru Zane’s support, a few months later in Paris they recorded those works together with three others for this welcome album on Alkonost Classic.

Venezuela-born but French by adoption and granted naturalised citizenship in 1912, Hahn is known as a composer who embraced and made a major contribution to the Belle Époque, the period of French history centred on Paris and typically dating from 1880 to the outbreak of First World War. Much of the music repertory written during that period is described as salon music and is out of vogue today. Hahn’s music could be said to embody the era. A lover of stage works, Hahn wrote opéra, opérette (most notably Ciboulette), comédie musicale, ballets and much incidental music. Urbane and highly cultivated, Hahn was also inclined towards writing smaller forms characterised by outstanding craftsmanship and genuine accomplishment. A baritone himself, he would sing in private settings but seldom in public performance. His interest in singing began while a young boy and the precocious Hahn was welcomed into well-connected Paris salons. Standing out was the occasion when Hahn, remarkably aged only six, sang opérette and accompanied himself on the piano at Princess Mathilde Bonaparte’s salon (the niece of Napoleon I, cousin to Napoleon III and related to Emperor Nicholas I of Russia). It was in the environment of the fashionable Parisian salons that Hahn developed into one of the foremost composers of mélodies, the French art song of which Si mes vers avaient des ailes and À Chloris are probably the most acclaimed. Around the period 1870’s-80’s, chamber works began to flourish significantly, too, and young French composers were being encouraged in the genre by a number of music societies, notably the Société Nationale de Musique, founded in 1871. Between 1891-1946, an era which encompasses the narrower period of the Belle Époque, Hahn wrote twenty or so chamber scores which have considerable variety and include some of his most outstanding works.

Written in 1901, the Romance in A major for violin and piano, marked Très modéré and lasting around five and a half minutes, is the earliest work on the album. No strangers to this piece, violinist Gabriel and pianist Dania in 2017 recorded it for their album Le Violon de Proust on the Évidence Classics label. Gabriel, with his winsome cantilena, and brother Dania shine here, ensuring a relaxed and charming lyricism flanking a contrasting central episode of effusive ardour.

Next. from 1905. we have the Variations chantantes sur un air ancient, a short work scored for cello and piano lasting just under five minutes. The source of the air ancien is Ambassador Periarco’s aria Beato chi può from Francesco Cavalli’s opera Xerse (prem. 1654, rev. 1660). This is a truly lovely set of variations in D-sharp major in ‘the old style’, with brothers, cellist Marc and pianist Dania, coming together to produce a gracious and felicitous sound.

In 1893 Hahn, with the encouragement of his former teacher Saint-Saëns, wrote his Trois Préludes sur des airs populaires irlandais scored for piano four-hands. Hahn had been to England in 1893 and wrote the Trois Préludes derived on airs from a collection of ‘Fifty Songs of Old Ireland’ with words by Alfred Perceval Graves and music by Charles Villers Stanford. Some years later in 1911, Hahn published Deux improvisations sur des airs irlandais, actually transcriptions for cello and piano of the first and third of the Trois Préludes, namely Le petit bouvreuil (The Little Red Lark) and Le saule (The Willow). These may be miniature pieces intended for the Parisian salon, yet cellist Marc and pianist Dania treat this captivating music with utmost respect. The duo provides Le petit bouvreuil with a joyous air creating a halcyon image of amity; in contrast, Le saule is imbued with an intense sorrow. All the cello and piano works played here are designated in the booklet as ‘discographic premieres.’

Despite its rare presence in the recital hall, the finest of Hahn’s chamber works might easily be the three movement Piano Quintet. From the period 1917-22, the first two movements were written while Hahn was serving in the French army during the First World War. The inaugural live performance of all five Tchalik siblings as an ensemble was in 2013 when they gave this Piano Quintet. In the seldom-used key of F sharp minor, the Quintet has an entirely absorbing personality containing the inevitable anguish and sadness of war countered by a heartening beauty and optimism. Standing out is the relatively lengthy opening movement marked Molto agiatato e con fuoco. The focused playing from the five Tchaliks of a predominantly turbulent character conveys a febrile, nervous energy with a heavily claustrophobic quality. A contrasting short central passage moderates the intensity perhaps giving a glimpse of untroubled possibilities.

Hahn was clearly influenced by the resurgence of interest in the string quartet genre experienced in France. Consequently, he wrote two string quartets in four movements, works separated by some four years. Compared to many contemporaneous European string quartets, Hahn’s pair of quartets are not progressive works as for example Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 (1936), neither do they plumb depths of emotion as say the Adagio molto of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 (1934). Still writing conservative tonal music in the manner of an earlier generation, after World War One Hahn became a casualty of the vogue for more progressive music and his music was consigned to relative obscurity. Now, some seventy-five years since his death, it seems reasonable to reassess his music for its inherent quality rather than in the context of the dynamic of its era. In my view, Hahn’s quartets are hugely engaging and deserve to be played more often. These are works in which I hear the influence of Massenet, like Saint- Saëns, his teacher and friend. Clearly relishing the opportunity to record these Hahn quartets in the studio, Quatuor Tchalik is in outstanding form, providing performances which are both perceptive and entirely eloquent.

Completed in 1939 in Paris, the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, a comparatively short work at some fourteen minutes, was premiered in 1940. Marked Andante molto moderato, the opening movement at just over eight minutes is the lengthiest of the four and certainly the most striking. Predominantly tranquil in mood, its pastoral character is highly appealing. Exuding charm, the third movement Andantino is beautifully played here by the Tchalik, creating a sense of dreamy reflection.

Following German occupation, Hahn fled Paris for exile in the French Riviera and began writing his String Quartet No. 2 in F major which he completed in 1943. It is a work of grander dimensions than the earlier A minor quartet. The Quatuor Tchalik knows it well as part of its repertory. In 2018, after winning the Salzburg International Mozart Competition, they played it to acclaim in recital at the Mozartium, Salzburg. Conspicuous is the opening movement Animé, with the Tchalik attaining an elevated level of lyrical contemplation, punctuated by short passages of a scurrying quality. Admirable, too, is the playing of the third and lengthiest movement at just under eight and a half minutes and marked Posément. Très modéré. In complete control, the Tchalik demonstrate total involvement in the brooding character of the writing.

Hahn’s music is played here with engaging artistry, precision and charm. The Tchalik demonstrate a firm grasp of the direction and impetus of the works, providing delectable moments too numerous to mention. Recording at La Seine Musicale on Île Seguin, an island in the River Seine, sound engineer Mikhaïl Tchalik has achieved first-rate sonics. Using modern instruments and bows made especially for each player by Parisian luthier Philippe Mitéran and bow-maker Konstantin Cheptitski, the Tchalik produce vibrant string tone together with steadfast intonation. In addition, Dania Tchalik’s Steinway model D Concert Grand piano emits a beautiful tone. To complete the presentation of the album, the booklet contains a helpful essay titled ‘Making Chamber Music’ written by Philippe Blay. 

Recordings of Hahn’s Piano Quintet and both String Quartets are thin on the ground. Nevertheless, there is some highly recommendable competition, featuring praiseworthy playing from the Quatuor Parisii with pianist Alexandre Tharaud. This was recorded in 1998 and originally released on Auvidis Valois, but I have the 2009 re-issue of that album on the Naïve label. It is a 2 CD-book format with the first disc containing the Hahn works and the second works by Albert Roussel. Another recording worthy of interest is the engaging 2000 London account of the Piano Quintet played by pianist Stephen Coombs and the Chilingirian Quartet on Hyperion (c/w Vierne Piano Quintet).

The way Quatuor Tchalik and pianist Dania Tchalik combine is striking. Compared to the main rival on Auvidis Valois/Naïve, the Tchalik siblings display liberal amounts of tone colour, refinement and buoyancy, all ingredients which make this the recording to have.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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