In the last decade or so a number of new releases from labels most notably Hänssler Classic have greatly assisted the resurgence of interest in maverick French composer Charles Koechlin. A relatively late-developer Koechlin went on to have a huge output well in excess of 200 opus numbers. For the most part his works have only occasionally been heard with the exception of The Seven Stars’ Symphony, Op. 132 (1933) and The Jungle Book (1899-1940) a cycle of symphonic poems which includes La course de printemps (The spring running) (Actes-Sud also BMG/Zinman).
Throughout Koechlin’s lengthy composing career he retained both the love of the symphonic poem and a penchant for romantic, oriental and exotic subjects. A native of Paris, Koechlin seems to have had a hopeless obsessive personality. He was certainly fixated with movie stars of the early Hollywood ‘talkies’ especially Lilian Harvey writing over one hundred pieces for her (including L’Album de Lilian) and Ginger Rogers (Danses pour Ginger) also Jean Harlow (Épitaphe de Jean Harlow), Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
Recently I enjoyed discovering Koechlin’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 72 and Piano Quintet, Op. 80 played by the Antigone Quartet on Ar Ré-Sé so I was delighted to be able to review this 2013 reissue of an earlier release of Koechlin’s first two string quartets from the Ardeo Quartet on the same label. It was founded in 2001 when the members of the Ardeo Quartet met whilst studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Of real value to the Ardeo is the support it receives from Mécénat Musical Société Générale with a residence at the Singer-Polignac Foundation since 2008 and with ProQuartet since 2010.
Exercising great care and attention Koechlin wrote three string quartets during the period 1911-1921 with the sketches of all three held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. The String Quartet No. 1, Op. 51 was composed in 1911/13 although the sketches show Koechlin began to draft the work as early as 1902. It was the Pascal Quartet that introduced the score in 1921 at Paris. Most striking for its unrestrained lyricism is the opening movement Allegro moderato. Here the Ardeo impart a highly introspective, almost tearful quality. Marked Allegro con moto the Finale has a rather hectic, helter-skelter character, redolent of Haydn.
Koechlin began the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 57 in 1915 and completed it the next year. Evidently the score was never official premièred as in 1927 Koechlin proceeded to orchestrate it as his First Symphony, Op. 57bis. As with the First Quartet it is the opening and concluding movements that hold the attention. Taking almost twelve minutes to perform its long languid melodies dominate the first movement Adagio which is notable for its subtly changing tone colours. Lasting seventeen minutes in the Finale: Allegro moderato an intense concentration is communicated by these players in a reading of considerable potency shot through with melancholy. These are polished performances of rarely encountered works and they convey a profound sense of engagement together with an impression of discovery.
Satisfyingly recorded in 2006 at Saint-Marcel Lutheran Church, Paris the sound technicians have provided clarity, presence with an excellent balance. In the booklet Ludovic Florin’s informative essay is a model of its type. This is a captivating and pleasurable release letting us hear music that deserves wide circulation.