René de Boisdeffre (1838-1906)
Complete Works for Piano
By the Brook Op.52 (publ. 1919)
Suite for piano four-hands Op.44 (publ. 1895)
Scherzo-sérénade for two pianos Op.9 (publ. 1873 completed 2021)
Trois Romance sans paroles Op.1 (publ.1866)
Trois Romance sans paroles Op.2 (publ.1866)
Deux Pièces Op.7 (publ. 1868)
Douze Pièces Op.38 Nos. 5-8, 10
Au bord d'un ruisseau, Sérénade champêtre Op.52 (publ. 1898, arr. Gottfried H Federlein)
Anna Mikolon (piano)
Rafal Lewandowski (2nd piano)
Stanisław Maryjewski (organ)
rec. 2021 Studio Koncertowe im J Hajduna, Radio Gdańsk and Cathedral of St. John Evangelist and St. John Baptist of Lublin, Poland
ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0532 
Jan Jarnicki's Acte Préalable label's commitment to unsung and virtually forgotten composer René de Boisdeffre is impressive to say the least. The present volume covering the keyboard works is the seventeenth – and doubtless more will follow with piano quartets, quintets, works for soloists and choirs still awaiting recordings. To recap from my earlier review of his works for violin, cello and piano (Acte Préalable AP0478) René le Mouton de Boisdeffre was born in Vesoul in the east of France and died in Vézelise just north of there in 1906. His poor physique meant that he didn't follow in the family's military tradition and was instead influenced by the musical talents of his gifted mother. His formal tuition was in Paris with Charles Wagner and Auguste Barbereau, teacher of Amboise Thomas and he was also to benefit from contact with Saint-Saëns and Massenet. I mentioned in that review that his piano works include a Suite Lorraine which is assigned op.92 but it does not appear here; Jan Jarnicki admits that some piano pieces are missing – only five of the twelve pieces op.38 were available to record for instance – but op.92 is not mentioned. The internet has a reference to a Suite Lorraine for orchestra by R de Boisdeffre arranged for piano solo by Salabert and this is designated op.97 so it is easy to see how one can become confused. Hopefully a future album will clear up the confusion.
What is recorded here is a fresh and melodic as any of his music that I have heard. His solo pieces lie between the songs without words of Mendelssohn and the miniatures of Chaminade. The op.1 and op.2 Romances sans paroles, from his first creative period, were published in 1866 and are clearly influenced by Mendelssohn; they even look like them on the page. Having mentioned Mendelssohn there are elements of Schubert in some of the melodic and harmonic touches of the first of the op.1 set whose melody is paralled by motion of the left hand accompaniment. The second is a flowing waltz, its melody enveloped in flowing quaver movement while the third is a wistful song in A minor with a constantly spinning left hand semiquaver accompaniment. The op.2 set are in a similar vein though Boisdeffre clearly feels more confident in terms of texture and these three pieces feel a little more mature and imaginative than their companions. The first opens with a chordal melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment that soon interweaves with the right hand and they explore some interesting harmonic changes. Boisdeffre cleverly makes more of a song out of what at first seems a basic melody. The opening motif of the second Romance is featured throughout in various guises as the piece moves from its stately melody to a more optimistic major key version and the piece continues to contrast major and minor. The melody is another that is surrounded by an interweaving web of accompaniment; I hesitate to say contrapuntal only because that suggests a more formal piece than is actually the case with this delightfully graceful Romance. The two op.7 pieces date from two years later and are dedicated to his friend Saint-Saëns. The first is another Romance sans paroles that is given a rather formal performance here that makes it sounds hesitant and more mannered than its flexible writing would suggest. This stiffness does not continue in the next piece, a jaunty, rustic serenade that bounces along without a care in the world.
The twelve pieces op.38, dedicated to Jules Massenet's wife Louise-Constance de Gressy, were published in 1904 but the publisher only sent a selection of five to the French National Library so the remaining seven were either never published or, if they were, the copies of the Prélude, aubade, barcarolle, sur la montagne, chant du soir, intermezzo and petite marche have disappeared. The five that did make it into the archive are no.5 berceuse, no.6 villanelle, no.7 scherzetto, no.8 canzonetta and no.10 Pierrette – scéne de bal. These continue in much the same vein as the earlier piano works; genial salon pieces with a wealth of melody and idiomatic piano writing. The berceuse seems just a shade too fast to be a successful lullaby and it has a darker middle section but it is engaging nonetheless. The villanalle is a trotting country dance and scherzetto has a hard-driven insistent nature with a lyrical middle section that seems to have a odd rhythmic element to it – I would love to see the score to figure it out. The canzonetta is the most dance-like piece here, its little song accompanied by an impishly bouncy accompaniment and running decorative passages while the Pierrette's lilting, carefree waltz brings this group to a close.
The solo items end with two versions of a piece that has already appeared in this series three times, Au bord d'un ruisseau op. 52; for flute and piano (AP0379), for piano trio (AP0446) and for violin and piano (AP0478). This latter version appears to be the only work of Boisdeffre's to have been committed to disc prior to Acte préalable's series having been recorded twice by Maud Powell in 1909 and 1914. The piano solo is trickling brook of a piece, its melody riding over a constant stream of delicate arpeggios. The organ version which ends this recital is a transcription by Gottfried H. Federlein, a pupil of Joseph Rheinberger. The melody is now assigned to the pedals and Federlein extends the central F major section a little before returning to the home key of A major.
I think for me it is the works for four hands and two pianos that grabbed my attention most. The disc opens with the suite op.44 for 4 hands and the vigorous opening Prélude puts one in mind of the Gallic exuberance of Chabrier while the air de ballet is a poised and charming country dance with a drone like accompaniment and, as with the prélude some sparkling decorative writing. There is nothing particularly oriental about the orientale, its exoticism instead achieved through drone basses and repeated rhythmic motifs though there is plenty of colour and contrast and the closing valse is lilting rather than the frothy, more spirited concoctions that Saint-Saëns or Chaminade were want to produce. The suite could easily be a series of dances from the final act of an imaginary opera and its four movements are wonderfully melodic. Which just leaves the Scherzo-sérénade, Boisdeffre's only work for two piano. The final page of the second piano part is missing so composer Romuald Twardowski has been brought in to produce a satisfactory ending. The serenade is a duple time song that is passed between the pianists in a contrapuntal web of sound while the scherzo outer sections are a sunny, brilliant and virtuosic tarantelle that makes one wish Boisdeffre had written more for the instrument. One can at least enjoy his marvellously crafted chamber music piano parts and accompaniments.
As in the chamber works I have heard Boisdeffre's lyrical gifts are amply demonstrated as his keen sense of keyboard texture and if all of these pieces are miniatures and mostly fall into what we might call salon pieces they are though none the worse for that; they are unfailingly attractive pieces. I might have arranged them differently; after the vivacity and sparkle of the opening ensemble pieces the solo items seem a bit lost at first and the scherzo-sérénade would be a better disc closer than the reflective and soft-textured organ solo. The performances are mostly good, especially so in the duet and two piano pieces where Anna Mikolon is joined by Rafal Lewandowski. In the solo items she is a sympathetic and sensitive player with the aforementioned caveat about her playing in op.7 no.1 which isn't bad, just stiffer than necessary. In her notes describes this piece as vocal and declarative and it seems to me that she is playing to the declarative nature of the piece rather than letting its phrases speak sing for themselves. On the whole this is an enjoyable addition to this enterprising series and I look forward to further volumes.