Classical CD Reviews
“Duo” = Works by Koechlin, Schmitt, Rivier, Bozza, Cartan – Jean-Guy Boisvert, clar./ Christiane Laflamme, flute/ Jean-Willy Kunz, harpsichord & p. – Atma “Blow the Winds Northerly” = Works by Francaix, Janacek & Klein – Stevenson Winds feat. Emmanuel Laville, oboe, & Mark O’Keeffe, trumpet – Nimbus Alliance
Published on October 15, 2013
“Duo” = CHARLES KOECHLIN: Sonatine modale for flute and clarinet, Op. 155; Motets de style antique for flute and clarinet, Op. 225; Pastorale for flute, clarinet, and piano, Op. 75 bis; Monodies for clarinet in A major, Op. 216, Nos. 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10; FLORENT SCHMITT: Sonatine en trio for flute, clarinet, and harpsichord, Op. 85; JEAN RIVIER: Duo for flute and clarinet; JEAN CARTAN: Sonatine for flute and clarinet; EUGÈNE BOZZA: Trois mouvements for flute and clarinet – Jean-Guy Boisvert, clar./ Christiane Laflamme, flute/ Jean-Willy Kunz, harpsichord & piano – Atma ACD 22679 [Distr. by Naxos], 69:00 ****:
“Blow the Winds Northerly” = JEAN FRANÇAIX: Sept Danses from Les Malheurs de Sophie; Le Gay Paris; JANÁČEK: Mladi for wind quintet and bass clarinet; GIDEON KLEIN: Divertimento for wind octet – Stevenson Winds feat. Emmanuel Laville, oboe, & Mark O’Keeffe, trumpet – Nimbus Alliance NI6209 [Distr. by Allegro], 57:00 ****:
French composers made wind music their own special province in the twentieth century. Here we have a sampling of a diverse group of Frenchmen who had that special relationship with wind instruments; in fact, one of them, Eugène Bozza, of Italian-French extraction, is known today almost exclusively for his charming chamber pieces for winds. Blow the Winds Northerly adds two Moravian composers to the mix, and the difference in esthetics between these gents and the Frenchmen is a study in itself.
Though the French composers represented on the album entitled Duo are, indeed, diverse in their musical influences and tastes, a number of them embraced musical archaism, one of the trends very much in the air in the first half of the twentieth century. Charles Koechlin, a strange bird by any classification, went very resolutely his own highly idiosyncratic way in his music. If you’re familiar with his most famous piece, The Jungle Book, which occupied Koechlin for almost twenty years, is a compendium of the styles that the composer essayed in his career. Endlessly eclectic, he seemed to incorporate every modern musical trend from Impressionism to serialism in his many works, but strangely he eschewed neoclassicism—maybe because he had no time for Stravinsky and his music. But Koechlin shared with other French composers, including those influenced by Stravinskian neoclassicism, an attraction to old music, which informs the Sonatine modale and Motets de style antique. The latter piece is made up of fifteen separate movements, some for vocal ensemble, some for winds. The first piece represented here, Chanson, is modeled on a motet by twelfth-century French composer Léonin and designed “to familiarize the ear with medieval sonorities.” Highly contrapuntal, it does all that, seeming at the antipodes from the neoclassical aesthetic. As well as an attraction to counterpoint, the Sonatine shows Koechlin’s affection for French folk melody. The brief Pastorale, the only completed movement from what was supposed to be a longer work, is languid and tender, showing the early influence of the Impressionists and of his teacher, Gabriel Fauré. Characteristically, the Monodies for solo clarinet are all over the place, some are like French folk or patriotic tunes, some highly angular, skirting atonality.
I’m intrigued by the music of Florent Schmitt, whose earlier works such as La tragédie de Salomé (1907) improbably but successfully combined Impressionist sonorities with larger-than-life late-Romantic musical gestures recalling Richard Strauss. On this program, Schmitt is represented by the much later (1934) Sonatine en trio, which shows the influence of neoclassicism and celebrates twentieth century composers’ rediscovery of the harpsichord. The piece was premiered on a program that also featured Manuel de Falla’s spiky neoclassical Harpsichord Concerto. A bit less spiky, the Schmitt is appealingly fresh and vital.
Eugène Bozza’s work (1974), the most recent on the program, illustrates the composer’s resistance to contemporary trends. Trois mouvements is a pretty, pastoral-sounding piece with a few more dissonances and a more wayward approach to melodic line than Koechlin allowed himself, but it doesn’t sound out of company with Koechlin’s 1925 Pastorale. Clarinetist Jean-Guy Boisvert, who wrote the notes to this recording, is reminded of the coloration of Ravel, and that strikes me as a fair assessment, especially of the final Allegro giocoso.
The inclusion of Jean Cartan’s Sonatine is bittersweet. The work is fluent, fluid, cool in the opening Pastorale and following Berceuse, jaunty in the final Rondeau. It displays the craftsmanship of Cartan’s teacher Paul Dukas, the emotional detachment and parodic wit of Stravinsky, who after all helped spearhead the neoclassical movement with a work for winds, his Octet of 1920. Why bittersweet? Because this piece bespeaks a real talent and predicts even fine things that were not to be; Cartan died the year after completing the work in 1931 at age twenty-six.
The performances here, by French Canadian musicians (two of whom studied in France as well as Canada), are perfectly idiomatic and lovingly played. Given Atma’s intimate yet nicely resonant recording set down in Salle Françoys-Bernier in Quebec, this is a treat for wind fanciers, Francophiles, and just about anyone else with a taste for finely honed, small-scale chamber music with a French accent.
The French connection continues on the program by the Stevenson Winds of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The works of French composer Jean Françaix bookend the program, and his pieces are as insouciantly, coolly French as you could wish. Very different, then, is the work of the two Moravians on the bill of fare, especially the early Divertimento by Gideon Klein, one of the Jewish composers who lived and composed at the concentration camp in Terezin before being deported in 1945 to Auschwitz, where he was immediately murdered.
Klein was a student of the other Czech on the program, Leoš Janáček, but he also provides contrast with his teacher. Unlike the quirkily fragmented musical style of Janáček, with its references to Moravian folk tunes, Klein’s piece is more cosmopolitan, closer in spirit to the restrained Expressionism of Alban Berg, who was the other chief influence on Klein’s style. There’s much of the dark nervous energy of musical Expressionism here. The Divertimento has a disconcerting mix of the diverting and the disquieting: a hallmark of some of the earlier music of the Second Viennese School. This piece is one of the few surviving compositions that Klein wrote before he was interned at Terezin; strangely and serendipitously, it turned up in 1990 in a locked suitcase that had been in possession of family friends of Klein for fifty years.
The best-known piece on the program, Janáček’s Mladi (“Youth”), is a musical memoir by the seventy-year-old composer looking back on his days as a schoolboy in the Czech city of Brno. With its lively rhythms (its slowest movement is the rather dynamic opening Andante) and impish spirit, it clearly belies the age of its composer.
Françaix may seem like a strange disc fellow for the two Moravian composers, but then, vive la difference! The style and musical material of the pieces are both light, even lightweight, and there are those who will want a bit more gravitas in their musical fare. I confess that an entire disc of Françaix, of which there is only one in my collection, is a bit hard to sit through, but his music, taken in doses, has its attractions. In Sept Danses from Les Malheurs de Sophie (“The Misfortunes of Sophie”), the woodwind quintet performs all sorts of contortions and gymnastics to portray the misbegotten adventures of a sort of anti-Madeline. Sophie, the dreadful little girl at the center of Francaix’s ballet, gets into one scrape after another, such as shaving off her own eyebrows or cooking and eating her mother’s pet goldfish. Françaix’s music is wittily evocative of such doings.
Finally, Françaix’s Le Gay Paris, written in 1975 for Bläser Ensemble Mainz, employs a mini-wind orchestra of clarinets, oboes, bassoon, contrabassoon, horns, flute, and trumpet, the last instrument enjoying star status. The prominence given to the trumpet imparts a by turns sauntering and swaggering casualness that’s just right for its subject. There’s a march, a waltz, and a gallop, so we’ve pretty well covered Paris from the boulevards to the dance hall to the circus tent.
A bit of a strange mix, then, but all very entertaining, especially in such spirited and well-played versions as these. Principal oboe of the Swedish Radio Symphony Emmanuel Laville, who performs in every piece but Le Gay Paris, and BBC Scottish Symphony principal trumpet Mark O’Keeffe get top billing, but kudos to all for the fine ensemble playing on display here. The recording, a good one, is more distant and decidedly less warm than the one from Atma.