thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950) Chamber Music
rec. 1980-2009 SWR MUSIC SWR19047CD [7 CDs: 509:04]
I've only come to Koechlin's music in the last couple of years, so this recently released 7 CD set of his chamber works has introduced me to much music I've never heard before. There's a companion 7 CD set of his orchestral music which I look forward to hearing in the not-too-distant future. The sets have been released to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth in 1867. For the chamber music box, SWR Music have recycled material from their back catalogue with, if I'm not mistaken, the occasional newcomer like the Sonata for flute and piano, Op. 52.
Charles Koechlin was born in Paris, and it was the original intention of his family that he should become an engineer. He enrolled at the École Polytechnique in 1887, but he became stricken with tuberculosis and spent six months recuperating in Algeria. This set him back and he graduated with only mediocre grades. Every cloud has a silver lining and he finally got his way to study music, entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1890. He was in good company – his fellow students included George Enescu, Reynaldo Hahn and Florent Schmitt. In 1896 he had further tuition from Gabriel Fauré, who was to become a significant influence. I was interested to discover that Koechlin wrote Fauré's first biography in 1927. His studies completed, he embarked on a career as a freelance composer and teacher. Other strings to his bow included work as a critic for the Chronique des Arts, co-founder of the Société musicale indépendante, a fervent supporter of the International Society for Contemporary Music, of which he became President of its French section, and President of the Fédération Musicale Populaire. After World War 1 his financial circumstances took something of a nosedive and he was forced to take work lecturing and teaching. He died aged 83 at his country home in the South of France in 1950.
Although limited in his proficiency, Koechlin played the oboe, horn and piano and had a working knowledge of other instruments. He was immensely gifted in the art of instrumentation and I was struck by the myriad shades of colour and nuance his music evinces. There's every hue from deepest dark to blazing sun. He was also very prolific, as the size of his compositional output, well in excess of 200 opus numbers, bears testimony. He drew upon numerous inspirations, especially art and literature, but also such diverse art forms as films – he was a bit of a movie buff. Koechlin was captivated by the beauty of Lilian Harvey (1906-68), a British-born actress and singer, and she became the influence behind Le Portrait de Daisy Hamilton on CD 3. I also detect oriental and folk influences in some of his music.
At the start of my journey through this set, I was amazed by the variety of instrumentation Koechlin employs. The clarinet is the focus of the first CD, and Dirk Altmann's expressive playing and warm, radiant tone are compelling. He's also extremely sensitive to dynamic range. The two Clarinet Sonatas of 1923 set the seal on a group of nine solo sonatas the composer began back in 1911. Both are cast in three movements with animated outer movements framing more considered slow ones. I was particularly taken by the Monodies for solo clarinet from 1948. I had never heard them before, and sadly we're only offered a selection. Though solo pieces, they offer the listener a diverse range of attractive rhythms. “La mer aux bruits innombrables,” stunningly articulated, has to be my favourite. Les confidences d’un joueur de clarinette is fascinating for its diversity. It consists of ten vignettes scored for various combinations, including horn, viola and solo clarinet.
The flute is centre stage on CD 2. Koechlin's melodic gifts shine more on this disc than on the others. The brief Epitaphe de Jean Harlow, Op. 164 is delightful. Scored for flute, alto sax and piano, it's the saxophone that confers a smoky, seductive aroma on this captivating miniature. In total contrast, the opening Assez lente of the Sonata for 2 Flutes, Op. 75 is bleak and sinuously chromatic. In similar vein, the first movement of the Trio (Divertissement for 2 Flutes & Clarinet) is world-weary and doleful, counterbalanced by a chirpy finale, taking the form of a cheeky dialogue between friends. The Piece for Flute and Piano Op. 218, which ends the disc, is subdued and reflective, and its other-worldly mien seems to ponder higher things.
The third disc begins with the Portrait de Daisy Hamilton for clarinet and piano mentioned above. The CD also includes works for oboe, bassoon and cor anglais. The opening movement of the Oboe Sonata has an attractive pastoral flavour. The Stèle funéraire for 3 Flutes, Op. 224, in which Peter Thalheimer executes the passages on flute, piccolo, and alto flute, is powerful. Composed at the end of Koechlin's life, in memory of his friend Paul Dommel, its melancholy vein is realized by chromatic semitone wanderings.
We turn to the viola and cello on CD 4. The Vingt Chansons Bretonnes Op. 115, for cello and piano (1931-1932), are skilful arrangements of twenty Breton folksongs. Ingenuity and invention lie at the heart of these pieces, which exploit the cello's technical arsenal to the full. The Cello Sonata I like the least on this disc. At just under twelve minutes it seems rather inconsequential. The middle movement, especially, I found quite nondescript and uninspired. The Viola Sonata is certainly more significant and has a lovely dreamy opener. A rhythmically exciting Scherzo follows. Then there's a luminously diaphanous Andante, preceding a lengthy eloquent finale.
The Koechlin piano output is substantial and fills three CDs. The performer is the German pianist Michael Korstick. His performances are assured, accomplished and immaculately poised. He judges the ephemeral characters of the music with instinctive sensitivity, animated vitality and poetic sensibility. The twelve Esquisses, Op. 41 are a case in point, where he captures the fleeting moods and tonal hues to perfection. The composer's interest in films and film stars and a viewing of Swing Time featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1936 resulted in 5 Dances pour Ginger Op.163. We get the first two here, apparently the others are two-piano works. Les heures persanes, Op. 65 exists in both piano and orchestral versions. The piano version we have here came first in 1919, with the orchestration following two years later. Inspired by literature, more specifically Pierre Loti’s Vers Ispahan, this 16-movement cycle, lasting over an hour, charts the author's journey across Persia. Korstick paints an exotically watercoloured landscape. It has to be the highlight of the piano music, getting a disc of its own. The other substantial piano work is L’Ancienne Maison de campagne, Op. 124. It consists of thirteen short movements or character pieces, each with a descriptive title. It recalls childhood memories of summer spent on his grandfather’s country estate near Lake Zurich.
The recordings span almost thirty years from 1980 until 2009. The sound quality is uniformly first rate. I cannot take issue with any of them. SWR provide a beautifully produced 164 booklet with notes in English, French and German, supplying biographical background, details of the music performed and information on the participating artists. These splendid annotations come courtesy of Koechlin scholars Otfrid Nies and Robert Orledge. This production, reasonably priced, offers an excellent overview of the composer's chamber music and I'm more than happy to have made its acquaintance.
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