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Hanns EISLER (1898-1962)
Hollywood Songbook (extracts) and improvised variations
1. An Den Kleinen Radioapparat - Bridge 1 [2:42]
2. Die Landschaft Des Exils - Bridge 2 [3:17]
3. Frühling - Bridge 3 [3:49]
4. Hollywood-Elegie II - Bridge 4 [2:59]
5. Speisekammer – Bridge 5 [2:38]
6. L’Automne Californien [2:34]
7. An Den Kleinen Radioapparat [1:33]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1962)
Transcriptions and Improvised Variations
8. Elegy (from Piano Concerto No.2/4) [4:14]
9. Evening Star (from Violin Concerto No.1/1) [5:34]
10. Nursery Rhyme (from Piano Sonata No.6/2) [4:07]
11. At Night (from Violin Concerto No.1/3) [5:55]
12. Autumn (from Piano Concerto No.2/1) [5:37]
Guillaume de Chassy (piano), Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone), Thomas Savy (clarinets), Arnault Cuisinier (double bass)
rec. 4-6 November 2014, Abbaye de Noirlac, Cher, France
ALPHA CLASSICS 210 [45:00]

Guillaume de Chassy says that his intention is to build ‘bridges between musical styles, languages and epochs’. Given his solid background in both classical and jazz, this is no artificial attempt to connect genres. In fact, I found it hard to hear where any dividing line could be drawn; for any individual, it would depend a great deal on their listening experience. If one’s definition of the jazz component is ‘anything that is improvised’, then there is a lot of jazz in this programme. To me, if an improvisation ‘sounds’ classical, then it is, and if it ‘sounds’ jazzy then – but who cares? In the end, it doesn’t matter. The point is that the bridge exists, but it is transparent, and the spirit of the source material is the overriding factor regardless of the style of the improvisation.

With his colleagues Savy and Cuisinier, de Chassy took on a similar challenge three years ago with his CD Silences which included improvisations on works by Poulenc, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schubert. This time, he devotes the whole CD to just two composers and includes a voice. And what a voice; Laurent Naouri is an outstanding operatic baritone whose repertoire ranges from Monteverdi to contemporary composers, with roles like Méphistophélès in Gounod’s La Damnation de Faust and Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande.

In the seven excerpts from Eisler’s Hollywood Liederbuch, Naouri adopts an intimate style of delivery (in contrast to the more conventional, though expressive, singing of Matthias Goerne on his Decca collection) which fits perfectly in the jazz line-up (aka chamber ensemble) of de Chassy, Savy and Cuisinier. The songs’ harmonic sequences provide the basis for the improvisations which reinforce the generally gloomy tone of the songs, especially when the bass clarinet is involved. We don’t hear these songs – described by Goerne as 'the 20th century Winterreise’ – often enough and these versions are an arresting way into them.

The second half of the Bridges sequence (tracks 6 and 7 are not part of it) uses source material from Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, sixth piano sonata and the mighty second piano concerto (also used in Silences), a work scarcely imaginable as affording subjects for songs, let alone with improvisations. Yet the concept works; the themes of the piano concerto’s first and fourth movements provide wonderful bases for slices of Slavic melancholy. De Chassy has the ability to translate an orchestral introduction and conclusion into a piano prelude and postlude, making it something quite different and, at the same time, intimately related to the original.

In a striking gesture, the surprisingly folk-like vocal setting (words by Marina Tsetaeva, herself influenced by folk song) of the intermezzo of the piano concerto that ushers in the Prokofiev sequence is initially unaccompanied. Naouri’s delivery is beautifully controlled; throughout the disc he finds the right tone. The double bass and bass clarinet pick up the sombre mood, a brief but telling suggestion of Tsetaeva’s desperate life under Soviet rule; she hanged herself in 1941.

A nostalgic text after Pushkin set to the theme of the Andantino of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto comes as something of a relief and the improvisation does, this time, swing jazzily with an easeful vocal reprise. What follows provides yet another contrast (a scherzo perhaps?), a Russian nursery rhyme for the text and clarinet shrieks in the improvisation pointing up the grotesquerie of the Allegretto of the sixth piano sonata. The naturally melancholic mood of the Andante of the violin concerto is matched in a ‘nocturne’ after Lermontov with a piano-led improvisation whose aptness is clear when the voice re-enters. The sequence is fittingly concluded by another nostalgic poem (after Sergei Esenin, once more a probable suicide) set to the first subject of the opening movement of the piano concerto. So effective is the translation to voice and ensemble that I didn’t miss for a moment the solo piano heroics of the original.

This may be a ‘concept album’ of a sort, but the ideas are implemented unpretentiously and questions of ‘classical versus jazz’ turn out to be irrelevant. The individual and ensemble music-making is of the highest quality and the sound quality full and clear. I look forward to further essays of this kind by de Chassy and his colleagues.

Roger Blackburn



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