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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Mélodies avec orchestre:-

Quatre Poèmes d’Edmond Haraucourt op.7 (1890-95 orch. 1894-97) (Clair de lune; Pleine Eau; Dame du ciel; Aux temps des Fées) [18:51]
Deux Poèmes Symphoniques op. 43 (1898-1909, orch. 1916) (2. Vers la plage lointaine (Nocturne)) [7:03];
Deux Poèmes d’automne op.13 (1894-99 orch. 1894-99) (Déclin d’amour; Les Rêves morts) [13:46]
Deux Poèmes d’André Chénier: La Jeune Tarentine op.23 (1900-02 orch. 1930/44) [8:42];
Chanson de Mélisande de Gabriel Fauré (orchestration Ch. Koechlin) (1898 orch. 1936) [3:40];

Trois Mélodies op.17 (1896-1900 orch. 1897-1900) (2. La prière du mort 3. Epiphanie) [13:28]
Etudes Antiques op. 46 (1908-10, orch 1913) (2. Soir au bord du lac 3. Le Cortège d’Amphitrite 4. Epitaphe d’une jeune femme) [12:19]
Six Melodies sur des poésies d’Albert Samain op. 31 (1902-06 orch. 1921) (1. Le Sommeil de Canope op.31 (1902-06 orch. 1921) [14:34]
Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes, pour chœurs et orchestre op.37 (1902-07 orch. 1908) [21:38]
Juliane Banse (sop)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Heinz Holliger
rec. SWR, Stadthalle Sindelfingen, Konzertsaal, 19-23 Jan 2004, 14-17 June 2004. DDD
Textes de présentation et textes chantés en français, anglais, allemand - Chanté en français
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.159 [53:10 + 60:57]
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This two disc set forms the most recent addition to the Hänssler Koechlin Edition. The series has been produced in collaboration with SWR, Heinz Holliger and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. Holliger has proved himself a staunch Koechlin paladin since the first disc in the series: review

The Quatre Poèmes d’Edmond Haraucourt are very much of their time ... or even earlier in fact. These are fragrant and voluptuous settings, artefacts of the Belle époque. Think in terms of Berlioz’s Nuits d’Été and Cleopatra. None of this is to tell against them and in the hands of Juliane Banse they receive the full-on stage-flammable treatment - listen to Clair de lune for example. With a title like that you expect something more understated and impressionistic. In fact it is gorgeously perfervid - Bernard Herrmann could have taken much of it as the model for his fake-operatic aria in Citizen Kane. The other songs have a more gently ingratiating tone. Listen to Pleine Eau, the liquid passage of Dame du ciel with its Mahlerian woodwind pointing and the Canteloube-tinkling of Aux temps des Fées.

The Deux Poèmes d’automne are also from the 1890s with Déclin d’amour very much in the same pattern as the last three of the Haraucourt songs. Unsurprisingly Les Rêves morts has a darker character caught in umber and ermine by Koechlin’s enchanting orchestration. The harp makes a telling contribution and is subtly caught by the engineers.

The two Chénier poems are from the turn of the century but were orchestrated in fine restrained colours in 1930 and 1944. We are given only the luminous wonderfully La Jeune Tarentine - the strongest of the set. The hesitant trembling soloistic strings at 2:10 are remarkable and lean towards Ravel, a voice absent from the more ‘old-fashioned’ opp. 7 and 13 sets.

The Chanson de Mélisande is by Fauré. Koechlin served as the elder composer’s assistant and did the orchestration of the music for an English language production in London in 1898. This passionately sombre and pulse-stilling setting reminded me at once of Elgar’s Where Corals Lie and of Delius’s Seven Danish Songs. There is even a cor anglais at 2:10 that had me thinking momentarily of Delius’s cuckoo. How Bernard Herrmann would have loved these songs. Did he know them, I wonder?

The last two songs from op. 17 are here at the start of CD2. La prière du mort is extremely atmospheric with a mesmeric darkened orchestral skein. The breathing quasi-ostinato and the general milieu of the piece will remind you of the opening Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. Epiphanie is just as sloe-eyed and dreamy but not as lichen-hung. Koechlin’s predilection for quiet ostinati continues and reminded me of the whispered strings in Sibelius’s Luonnotar. The gorgeous vocal line is keened out by Banse and retains that voluptuous Pre-Raphaelite dreaminess also found in the orchestral songs of Duparc and Chausson. I am dumb-founded that these two songs have until now sunk without trace.

The longest of the songs is a setting of Samain. Le Sommeil de Canope stays in the zone established by the op. 17 set. Banse catches and sustains the drugged contemplative mood perfectly across almost a quarter of an hour. The music now becomes yet warmer and more sumptuous. Although not quite as dense it takes us close to the world of Havergal Brian’s Wine of Summer symphony and Goossens’ By the Tarn.

The Nocturne Vers la plage lointaine is the first of the Deux Poèmes Symphoniques. This is one of two purely orchestral works on these discs. It was orchestrated during the Great War and ploughs a dreamy pilgrim’s path. At a number of junctures it had me thinking of a British composer who had died the previous year - possibly Britain’s most grievous musical loss, George Butterworth. There is also something elegiac about this writing which also links with that of Frank Bridge. This is a most understated but effective score with a dank auburn shimmer from the strings and quiet fanfares from the woodwind and horns.

On CD2 we get the last three of the set of four Etudes Antiques for orchestra alone. Once again the shining lapping motif returns as an ostinato in Soir au bord du lac. The music would have pleased Bernard Herrmann. A nice touch from the German orchestra is the subtle vibrato the first horn adds to his part to give a distinctive French flavour to the experience of this minimalistic sketch. Le Cortège d’Amphitrite is a tinkling miniature which was surely influenced by the experience of gamelan at the various Parisian international expositions. Towards the close of the piece we may perhaps be reminded of Holst’s Neptune. This is music sometimes very close to that of Ravel - both the earlier Pavane and the contemporaneous Ma Mère l’Oie. Admirers of Ravel’s works from that era must hear this music which is more airily impressionistic and spare than those pieces dating from the 1890s.

The Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes is for mixed double choir, organ and orchestra. It’s the longest continuous piece here and takes as its inspiration Haraucourt’s poem Vierges Mortes. After a sustained whispered cortège bells ring out through the mist. This is spell-binding and subtle music which again reminded me of Holst - this time his Ode to Death (Whitman setting). Fauré is another model - his Requiem - but here the mood is darker. For all the work’s feminine qualities the crashingly awesome climax at 15:00 forces us to look into the grave and dissolution. That same climax carries the shadow of the Dies Irae. Koechlin calls for a cruelly demanding stratospheric pianissimo from the women singers and gets it at 17:56. This is magical writing, once again redolent of The Isle of the Dead.

The disc is extremely well documented with all texts and translations in legible font size. There is an uncharacteristic typo on p. 38 where 1821 should read 1921. Otherwise the attention to detail is outstanding. Hänssler even took the trouble to commission translations of Koechlin’s texts from Bertram Kottmann and Faith J Cormier and then go the extra mile by telling us that the commissioned work was intended to be literal rather than free. Against this background I am only sorry that a number of the song sets are presented only partially. It would have been good to hear complete sequences as originally intended.

All but the Fauré piece are world premiere recordings.

If your tastes lie in the direction of the Ravel, Goossens, Holst and Rachmaninov works I have mentioned or the realms of French song with orchestra then you must get this set. The performances are exemplary and the elusive mood - so often bound up with death - is convincingly sustained by all concerned. I think you will be dumb-founded at the quality of this music and its power to move.

Rob Barnett




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