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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Cello sonata, op. 66 (1917) [11:56]
Chansons bretonnes Books 1-3, Op 115 (1931) [29:57]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Cello sonata (1915) [11:13]
Peter Bruns (cello) Roglit Ishay (piano)
No booklet provided
rec. 2006 (?)
Reviewed as 320k mp3 download.

Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Cello sonata in F sharp minor, op. 66 (1917) [21:15]
Expansion, Op. 21 (1888) [2:07]
Caprice, Op. 16 (1887) [2:48]
Nadia BOULANGER (1887–1979)
Trois Pièces (1914) [6:45]
Vincent d’INDY (1851-1931)
Lied, Op. 19 (1884) [7:52]
Cello Sonata, Op. 84 (1924-25) [18:23]
Nicolas Aldstaedt (cello)
José Gallardo (piano)
Reviewed as 320k mp3 download.
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK, 2008
NAXOS 8.572105 [59:36]

Recently I reviewed two older releases from Hyperion of French music for cello and piano that had unaccountably fallen into their Archive Service. This meant they were out of print and only available through a special CD-R burn or by download. Such was the enjoyment I gained from both discs that I decided to explore this music further. Here are two more not quite so old releases, featuring some works in common with the Hyperions.

The German label Hänssler Classic has been a staunch supporter of the music of Charles Koechlin, with more than ten releases solely dedicated to his works (some reviewed/linked here). This one is described as providing the premiere recording of the complete Chansons bretonnes, which is slightly overstating matters. Certainly, it is the first single CD to have all three books on it. However, the Hyperion recordings also have the three books, with Book 3 on the second disc, and predate the Hänssler recording by a number of years. There is also the matter of the Hyperion recording of Book 3 including two pieces that the Hänssler does not.

So much for semantics, it is the music that counts, and there is an astonishing degree of variation between the two performances. Lidström and Forsberg on Hyperion take a languid approach to the Koechlin pieces, which I felt suited them, without having any point of comparison. They were the first works by the composer that I’d heard.

However, I have been forced to reconsider that opinion by Bruns and Ishay. Even before I began listening to their recording, I knew that something was “up”. The sonata timings differ by almost five minutes, and this in a relatively short work, and the Chansons bretonnes, as a set of three, by seven. The variations are not due to repeats taken or not; this is entirely down to tempo. Bruns and Ishay really dig into the music, giving it much more dynamic variation as well as greater speed. The most dramatic difference is in the finale of the sonata (allegro non troppo), where Bruns/Ishay (5:43) do play it as the tempo marking indicates, whereas Lidström/Forsberg seem to treat it as andante (8:25). I did note a misgiving about this in my Hyperion review, and listening to the Hänssler bears it out. However, it should be noted that the composer asks for “absolute evenness in sound and lack of expression” which it must be said is not adhered to as closely by Bruns.

The difference in approach between the two recordings is maintained in the Chansons. In my favourite of the set Les Laboureurs, the workers are definitely going at it harder with Bruns and Ishay, taking 3:46 to finish their work, as compared to 4:44 with Lidström and Forsberg. Speed is not everything, and I think there is a great deal of poetry in the Lidström performances that is not so evident with Bruns.

Overall, Bruns/Ishay win out for the variation in dynamics and tempo that they bring to the music. Their sonata is a clear winner, the Chansons a closer run thing. Marks are deducted, however, for the lack of a booklet with the download. Given that Hänssler has produced this Koechlin edition, I imagine the sleeve-notes might be quite informative, but that’s all I can do: imagine.

To my surprise, it appears to be my first exposure to the Debussy sonata. I have to say that it doesn’t rank highly in my affections after a few listens, especially the second movement Serenade, which seems to be anything but. Based on what I’ve already said, I imagine that it receives a good performance from Bruns and Ishay. Someone with a greater knowledge of, and affection for the work would be a better judge.

I will make a negative comment at this point, though not about this specific Hänssler recording, but in general. There was no booklet supplied with this download from Classicsonline, nor is it available through any download or streaming source that I could find, so it is clear that the blame lies with the label.  I checked the most recent Hänssler recordings: still no booklets.  Hänssler, lift your game.

The Naxos recording is one of their Laureate series, where the winners of various international competitions are entitled to a recital disc on the label. Nicolas Altstaedt, a German cellist, won the 2006 Adam International Cello Competition in New Zealand. Since this Naxos disc of French works, he has made a dozen or so recordings for other labels, including concertos by Haydn, Schumann and Ligeti, though only one more French work: Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

The only work in common with the Hyperion recordings is the Pierné sonata. The work is composed in a single movement, but with four discrete sections, which were tracked separately on the Hyperion, but as a single track here. In my earlier review I remarked that Lidström treated the section as less animated than I might have expected. Hence it is not a surprise that Altstaedt is more than three minutes quicker, and his Animé is just that. This is not a work that reveals its charms easily and I find myself more engaged by the two miniatures that close the recording.

Any recording of the music of Nadia Boulanger is to be welcomed. These Trois Pièces are the most recorded of her small catalogue – ArkivMusic lists six – and they provide much pleasure and variety in less than seven minutes.

The orchestral works of Vincent d’Indy, via the Chandos series (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 4), have been one of my great discoveries over the last few years. These two works add to my knowledge and admiration. The Lied was originally composed for cello and orchestra, and this version was done by the composer. It is indeed a song, but without words, the cello providing a perfectly acceptable replacement for the human voice. It is a gloriously melodic work.

ArkivMusic lists only this recording of the d’Indy Sonata, though further searching finds another one, with the violin sonata, on Timpani. Quite why it is ignored is hard to fathom. Its four movements hark back to the baroque with movement titles such as gavotte and gigue, and this gives a clue to its relatively uncomplicated nature. The slow movement Air is rapturous, the Gavotte with its plucked opening delicious.

I find myself agreeing with my colleague Nick Barnard about Altstaedt’s style. It seems a little “large” and overly accentuated for this music, and thus I can’t be as enthusiastic about the performance as I can about the music itself.

Two recordings of unjustly obscure French works: the Koechlin is very fine, some misgivings about the Naxos.

David Barker

Previous review (Altstaedt): Nick Barnard