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Joseph-Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955)
Piano Music
Dans l’ombre de la montagne (1913) [33:31]
Un Prélude Dominical et six pièces à danser pour chaque jour de la semaine (1928-29) [27:41]
Choral varié (1904) [7:41]
La chanson de Marguerite: Caprice Valse, Op. 5 (1886) [5:11]
First-Love: Bluette, Op. 6 (1886) [5:25]
Stephanie McCallum (piano)
rec. 6, 13, 20 July 2015, Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

It’s encouraging to see more and more of Joseph-Guy Ropartz’s music being recorded, as a casual glance at Amazon reveals. Timpani have led the way in promoting this unsung and largely forgotten composer; a couple of years ago I reviewed a delightful CD of instrumental music. I’m particularly fond of the five symphonies, a good starting point, and the six string quartets are similarly worth exploring. It’s promising that Toccata, a label to be lauded for its ventures off the beaten track, has now taken up the cause with this new release of the composer’s piano music; ‘first recordings’, as it states on 'the tin'.

Ropartz lived a long life into his nineties. He was born in Guingamp, Côtes-d'Armor, Brittany, into a wealthy family. He started off on the path of law but in 1885 entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied harmony with Theodore Dubois and composition with Jules Massenet. It was around this time that he struck up a friendship with the Romanian composer Georges Enescu. In 1887 he entered the organ class of César Franck. In 1894 he moved to Nancy in the east of France, where he became director of the Conservatory, a post he held for the next twenty-five years. This was followed by a ten year stint (1919-29) in a similar position in Strasbourg. Retiring in 1929, he went on composing until 1953, when he was struck down with blindness. He died two years later.

Opening the disc is the suite Dans l’ombre de la montagne, the most substantial work here. The sombre narrative extends across all seven movements, with recurring motives throughout, providing an idée fixe. Ropartz takes his lead from Vincent d’Indy’s Poème des Montagnes, Op.15 and Promenades, Op. 7 by Albéric Magnard, both of which have been recorded by McCallum. She suggests that Ropartz makes direct reference to the d’Indy work in his title. The music throughout is generally of a bleak, thoughtful and reflective persuasion, with some respite being provided by the more animated and cheery fifth movement, marked ‘Ronde’. Stephanie McCallum’s performance of intensity and rhetorical eloquence has exceptional appeal.

Originally conceived as an orchestral work for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1929, Un Prélude Dominical et six pièces à danser pour chaque jour de la semaine is cast in a more joyous and optimistic vein than the previous work. The ballet characterizes each day of the week with its associated activities. The score showcases Ropartz’s more impressionistic style, and the music is awash in colour which McCallum imaginatively conveys in this piano arrangement which the composer made in 1930. I particularly like the reflective contrasts in Jeudi, the fifth movement. The jaunty swagger of Samedi brings this alluring suite to a close.

The Choral varié of 1904 clearly shows a Franckian influence, almost taking its lead from Franck’s organ chorales. Indeed, the piece was arranged for organ by Ropartz’s student and later colleague at Nancy, Louis Thirion. It consists of four variations on a chorale, each separated by a fermato, whose duration is stipulated by the composer. Having listened to the work several times, I can imagine its character more successfully expressed on the organ. The final two pieces La chanson de Marguerite: Caprice Valse and First-Love: Bluette of 1886, predate the composer’s contact with Franck. These seductively lyrical pieces have an endearing intimacy. McCallum's performances encapsulate the affability, genteel charm and captivating essence of these beguiling miniatures.

These are winning performances, warmly recorded, and make a strong case for both the attractiveness and quality of this composer’s music. Stephanie McCallum’s enthusiastic advocacy adds to the success of the mix. Peter McCallum’s detailed annotations, in English only, provide fascinating and informative background. Will there be any more of Ropartz’s piano music to come? Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Stephen Greenbank



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