André CAPLET (1878-1925) Épiphanie (1923) [20:47] Jean RIVIER (1897-1987)
Symphony No. 5 in A minor (1950) [23:22] Paul LE FLEM (1881-1984)
Symphony No. 2 (1958) [25:54]
Jacques Neilz (cello: Caplet)
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Ernest Bour
rec. live 25 December 1947 (Caplet); 24 June 1951, Strasburg (Rivier); 10 September 1958, Besançon (Le Flem) FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1259 [70:07]
I am always more than happy to explore the less-trodden byways of rare repertoire. This new release from Forgotten Records fits the bill just fine. These live broadcast performances, taped between 1947 and 1958, feature the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française under conductor Ernest Bour (1913-2001). Bour made something of a speciality of contemporary music, and directed world premieres by Bussotti, Ferneyhough, Górecki, Ligeti, Rihm, Stockhausen and Xenakis. He also conducted the French premières of Hindemith's Symphony Mathis der Maler and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. In these recordings of music by André Caplet, Jean Rivier and Paul Le Flem, he is obviously firmly ensconced in his comfort zone.
For me, the highlight of this splendid disc is André Caplet's exotic Épiphanie for solo cello and orchestra. It dates from 1923, two years before his death, and was his last completed composition. He himself described the work as “A musical fresco after an Ethiopian legend”, a reference to the Ethiopian folk music he employed in the score. Caplet's mastery of the orchestra is revealed in his imaginative and colourful orchestration. It is in three movements (Cortège, Cadence and Danse des Petits Nègres), though some regard it as two movements linked by a cadenza. The opening movement, the most impressionistic, exudes a genial aroma. It begins with solo cello pizzicati set against shimmering strings. I have always felt, though, that it ends rather abruptly. The centrally-positioned technically demanding cadenza certainly puts the cellist through his paces. The snare drum ostinato which accompanies the soloist furnishes the music with a sense of menace. A lively, energetic movement follows, impressive for its brilliant scoring. Jacques Neilz formidable virtuosity and musicianship does full justice to the piece. I do have a preference for the more portentous mood evoked in the cadenza of this performance than in the EMI recording with Xavier Phillips (cello) and the Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie under Emmanuel Plasson (73503). I would very much like to hear the Frédéric Lodéon recording with Charles Dutoit (Erato 2564632843) which, from all accounts, seems highly regarded.
Jean Rivier served as Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatory from 1948 until 1966 when he retired. He is regarded as an outstanding exponent of French neo-classicism. He composed eight symphonies, four of which are for strings only (2, 3, 4 and 8). I am familiar with 3,4 and 8 from a recording on the Pavane label with Bernard Calmel and his orchestra (ADW 7328). The value of Bour's live airing lies in the fact that it is the only available outing of this work on CD. George Tzipine made a commercial recording of the Third and Fifth Symphonies in 1958, also with the French National Radio Orchestra on the Pathé label (DTX 286), available on Forgotten Records (FR369). The symphony begins with a very brief sombre Lento before the music launches into a spiky, energetic romp, neoclassically framed. There are times in the first movement where the music gives the impression of being on a war footing, but there are some fleeting lyrical moments interspersed. Where the music is bombastic, Bour draws plenty of gusto from the players. A lively Scherzo comes next, with more than a hint of a Pierrot burlesque about it. The slow movement begins and ends with a heavy laden funereal tread. Throughout there are some beguiling woodwind passages. Bour injects vim and vigour into the thrilling finale. Near the end there are some brash sounding brass salvos, which add to the effect.
The Breton composer Paul Le Flem studied with Vincent d'Indy. He composed four symphonies. Nos. 1 and 4 have made it onto CD, but No. 2 has not been so lucky—that is, until now. This live broadcast performance was taped on 10 September 1958 in Besançon. The work is in three movements. Two outer animé movements bookend a central lent. I am only familiar with the Symphony No. 4 (1975), but I found the similarities between the two striking, despite the almost twenty-year gap in composition. Both are combative, with an underlying conflict pervading their outer movements. The Symphony No. 2 is not quite as dissonant and abstract as its successor, though. The slow movement of the Second is dreamy and laced with some impressionistic brush strokes. This attractive work would certainly benefit from a modern recording in state-of-the-art sound quality.
Allowances must be made for the age and circumstances of the recordings. There is no getting away from the fact that the sound is constricted, as is the spatial perspective. Yet such is the value of these historic documents that this is a price worth paying. For me, Bour has full measure of these alluring scores, and directs authoritative and compelling performances. No documentation is provided.