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René de BOISDEFFRE (1838-1906)
Sextuor pour piano, 2 violons, alto, violoncelle et contrebasse (ad libitum), Op 43 [30:58]
Sextuor pour piano, 2 violons, alto, violoncelle et contrebasse (ad libitum), Op 81 [33:00]
Andrzej Kacprzak (violin) Krzysztof Komendarek-Tymendorf (viola); Adam Garnecki (cello); Jędrzej Kacprzak (double bass); Anna Mikolon (piano)
Marta Kołodziejska-Kacprzak (violin: Op 43); Dominik Urbanowicz (violin: Op 81)
rec. July 2021, Concert Hall of Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk, Poland
Première recordings

If you collect classical CDs, you will surely have heard of the Acte Préalable Label, the go-to catalogue for all things Polish which, since it was founded in 1996, with the principal aim of promoting the country’s classical music and composers, currently has over 400 CDs out there. These include over 100 Polish composers and more than 500 Polish works, many of which are first-recordings. But, under the powerful guidance of forward-looking owner, Jan Jarnicki, this is by no means the full story.

When I first started collecting vinyls, and then CDs, so much of the music available was basically main-stream. There were a few labels like Vox and Turnabout, who were brave enough to start releasing Piano Concertos by Hummel and other composers ‘unknown’ at the time. But Acte Préalable doesn’t just promote Polish music, it also champions composers from other countries, who, for whatever reason, haven’t seemed to garner the praise they deserve. To think, for example, that an effectively unknown French composer like René de Boisdeffre has already got sixteen CDs to his name, which represent a detailed investigation of his output, is almost unbelievable. Having already reviewed two of the composer’s chamber music CDs, Works for Violin and Piano Vol 1 and Works for Piano Trio, I was very keen to hear what he could achieve with the greater resources of the piano sextet – in this instance, piano, two violins, viola, cello, and optional double bass.

René de Boisdeffre was born at Vesoul in eastern France, and died in Vézelise, less than 100 miles away. His output – where he appears to owe much to Gounod and Massenet in his vocal music, and Lalo and Saint-Saëns in his instrumental – includes some sixty chamber-music works, for which he was awarded the Prix Chartier, piano pieces, vocal music, and a handful of orchestral works. As a consequence of the above influences, his musical style has usually been described as ‘quite conservative’. His personality was that of a subtle, modest and pious man, which, of course, didn’t help enormously in terms of moving his career forward. He was totally at home in the idyllic countryside of Lorraine, or the Vosges mountains, and rarely travelled abroad. Consequently his conservatism manifests itself in elegance, restraint, lightness and charm, although the complexity of some of his works, does take them well beyond mere examples of salon music.

The first Sextet, Op 43, was published in 1890, but doesn’t really qualify as a bona fide ‘piano sextet’ in the true sense of the word. It’s not that it includes a double bass, even though you could count up on both hands the number of piano sextets where a double bass is actually required. But it is the fact that the double-bass is marked ‘ad libitum’ which means that it is basically not treated as an individual part or line in the score. It either doubles the cello, an octave below, as is often its orchestral role – or it rests, on occasions, to provide a lighter, contrasting texture, or it reinforces the pianist’s left hand. Schubert’s Trout Quintet also involves double-bass and cello, but here, they are treated as two independent lines. Boisdeffre’s Sextet, in fact, is also known as his Piano Quintet No 3. The opening Allegro deciso presents a standard sonata-allegro design, with sufficient rhythmic and melodic contrast between the first and second subjects. It is well-crafted overall, and, even if it doesn’t reach great heights, is sufficiently tuneful, in a sort of business-like way.

Unless I missed it somewhere on the jewel case, or in the booklet, there seems to be no mention of the key of either Sextet. The present one is actually in B-flat major, and the second-movement Scherzo – marked Allegro grazioso – is in G major. This is an altogether more attractive and listenable movement, and is slightly reminiscent of the Scherzo from Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto. Boisdeffre creates an interesting four-bar rhythmic effect at the start by having two bars in the prevailing 9/8 time signature followed by one bar in 12/8 and one back in 9/8. The first Trio appears in the tonic minor (G minor) and, marked con brio (with vigour), provides a harsher contrast to the lighter-sounding Scherzo. After a reprise of the latter, the second Trio in B-flat major is a much suaver, lyrical movement at a slower tempo, but which leads back to a final reprise of the Scherzo proper, which has a lovely, cheeky little ending. Boisdeffre clearly liked this Scherzo, as he fashioned a version of it in the form of the Septet, Op 49, for piano, wind and double bass.

The third movement – Andante sostenuto – is very much the emotional heart of the Sextet, set in the relative minor key (G minor). Boisdeffre makes good use of the singing quality of the cello in the opening section, and there is an effective chorale-like section in the technically-distant key of G flat major, arrived at via an equally-remote passage in B flat minor, all managed seamlessly. The composer is aware that he will soon need to return to the movement’s home key, which an effective enharmonic modulation soon takes care of – a musical legerdemain which relies on the fact that, in this particular instance, D-flat and C-sharp sound the same, but are unrelated on paper. The opening returns, after which there is a reprise of the chorale-like section, now in the far-more-closely-related tonic major (G), as the movement reaches its gentle conclusion.

The Finale is marked Allegro con brio, and immediately dispels any calm memories of the slow movement. Its essentially martial quality, and rhythmic patterns, reminded me somewhat of the third-movement march from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, and there does, in fact, appear to be a certain à la russe feel to the thematic material in general. Boisdeffre works through his themes with great assurance, building all the while towards its virtuosic close – a thoroughly effective piece of writing, both for pianist and strings, even though it is more Piano ‘Five-and-a-half’ than Piano Sextet proper.

The second Sextet, Op 81, is in the key of A minor. While it is a later work than its predecessor, the booklet doesn’t appear to give the year of composition. The booklet does, however, state that, unlike the first Sextet, the role of the double-bass here is ‘completely independent’, even though it is still showing as ‘ad libitum’ in the title. The opening movement is marked Allegro energico, which is borne out by the almost-Brahmsian character of the first subject. The second-subject material in the exposition does seem a little drawn-out and meandering, but by the time it reappears in the recapitulation, some judicious pruning is evident. The coda is particularly well-crafted, leading to a vigorous and highly-effective dénouement.
The slow movement, Andante espressivo, opens with muted strings, and is in ternary form, an opening section, a contrasting middle, and a reprise of the opening – a kind of musical ‘sandwich’. The piano’s role here is more to decorate, and elaborate on the melodic lines, which are now assigned to the strings, creating some effective textural variety. The Scherzo, marked Vif et leger, is appropriately nimble, and fleet-of-foot to begin with – a straightforward two-in-a-bar metre, unlike its predecessor. As with the first Sextet, Boisdeffre comes up with an interesting formal design for the movement as a whole. Written in the key of D major, the composer again interpolates two Trios that provide significant and effective contrast in terms of tonality, articulation and tempo, producing what might be described as a Scherzo-Rondo hybrid. The composer’s harmonic palette includes D major, G minor, B major, and even a short excursion to B-flat major in the Coda, but it all works so well, both in theory and in practice. This is another most effective movement, which certainly does have more than a soupçon of Saint-Saëns about it.

The start of the Finale – Allegro sostenuto – gives the lower-pitched instruments an opportunity to shine, where the brusque opening theme particularly highlights the double-bass, in tandem with the cello, and the pianist’s left hand. The composer also includes a theme which is uncannily like a well-known number from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’. There is also a section where it feels as if Boisdeffre might be building up to a massive ‘Tristanian’ climax, à la Wagner, only to retrace his steps, one at a time in the opposite direction. But this is all part of the master-plan, of course, and allows the composer a fresh opportunity to build up to a climax, thereby producing a really effective and satisfying conclusion, where string tremolandos greatly add to the impetus from the piano. All in all, and despite my slight reservation about its opening movement, I think I’m already getting to like the Second Sextet more.

In the world the Piano Sextet – or even Piano ‘Five-and-a-half’ – there aren’t that many works to choose from, which must add a few premium points to Boisdeffre’s creations. They are extremely well-written, tuneful and entertaining, and the performances here do the music real justice. Pianist Anna Mikolon deserves an extra accolade for her sterling efforts here, and, in fact, on all the many discs she has recorded for the label, which has once more faithfully transferred every nuance of the playing to CD.

To the listener, I would say that, while, by their very nature, they’re not going to be show-stoppers, these two Piano Sextets by René de Boisdeffre are still well worth getting to know.

To the Acte Préalable label, I would simply add: ‘You’re on a really great mission – so please keep up the good work’.

Philip R Buttall

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