Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR / Heinz Holliger
rec. 2000-2010, various locations
Sung texts with English translations provided
SWR MUSIC SWR19046 CD [7 CDs: 470:22]
The 150th anniversary of Parisian composer Charles Koechlin’s birth fell in November 2017. This release features Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR directed by Heinz Holliger. It contains a number of Koechlin’s orchestral works, including fourteen claimed world première recordings, recorded by Südwestrundfunk during the period 2000-2010. These are all reissues originally released on a Hänssler Classic series, except Méditation de Purun Bhagat, op. 159. This Koechlin project began in 2001 as a collaboration between the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, conductor Heinz Holliger, and Otfrid Nies of the Charles Koechlin Archive in Kassel. SWR Music also issued the Chamber Music part of the Edition Charles Koechlin (review).
One might infer from the title of this set, incorrectly, that all Koechlin’s orchestral works are included. Following a quick look at a Koechlin’s works list, I estimated of some fifty-seven orchestral works eleven appear here. Of the orchestral songs, the list shows seventeen groups; six are included here. Comprising early orchestral songs, orchestrations of other works by famous composers and late large-scale symphonic poems, this box set is best described as an overview. Notable absentees, to name but two, are The Seven Stars' Symphony, op. 132 and Second Symphony, op. 196, and it is most disappointing they are not included. From his large eight-work cycle Livre de la jungle (The Jungle Book) after Rudyard Kipling, included are the symphonic poems La Course de printemps, La Méditation de Purun Bhagat and Les Bandar-log. It is hard to understand the absence of the remaining works in the cycle the symphonic poem La Loi de la jungle, op. 175 and the orchestral songs Trois Poèmes, op. 18 (Berceuse Phoque, Chanson de nuit dans la jungle and Chant de Kala Nag).
Koechlin would not alter his style of composing or change his high artistic principles for any purpose, such as to obtain commissions, and certainly not for reasons of short-term mass-market appeal. The popularity and the novelty value of a score held no interest for Koechlin. He was principally concerned with the enduring quality of his music. This idealistic ivory-tower existence may have suited Koechlin artistically, but it frequently resulted in many devastating disappointments and financial difficulties. Despite only sporadic interest showed in his compositions during his lifetime, Koechlin explained that he was convinced that his works would gain in value over time, and after his death: “Once a composer is classed as worthy of admiration, some fifty years or a hundred years after his death… then everyone becomes overwhelmed at the start of a concert in which the conductor is to ‘reveal’ the ‘newly discovered master’.”
Throughout Koechlin’s lengthy composing career, he retained both love of the symphonic poem and a penchant for romantic, oriental and exotic subjects. A native of Paris, he seems to have had a hopeless obsessive personality. He was certainly fixated with movie stars of the early Hollywood talkies, especially Lilian Harvey; he wrote well over one hundred pieces for her (including L’Album de Lilian). There were other works in recognition of Ginger Rogers (Danses pour Ginger), Jean Harlow (Épitaphe de Jean Harlow), Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. In fact, it was the Satie-like piano piece Danses pour Ginger that introduced me to Koechlin’s music, a short work I have never lost admiration for. Koechlin’s compositional style was generally very understated, almost elusive, full of delicate, vivid, almost perfumed blends of instrumental sounds. Many of his contemporaries permitted him to orchestrate their scores, acknowledging that he was true master of his art.
The first two CDs of the set are a combination of orchestral songs performed by German soprano Juliane Banse, and orchestral works. These are early works composed up to 1910 that Koechlin later orchestrated. Originally written for voice and piano, almost all the songs are performed for the first time and all receive first recordings. Of the four orchestral works, only Koechlin’s orchestration of Fauré’s Chanson de Mélisande has been recorded before. Koechlin’s distinctive orchestration is markedly concise and pellucid. Banse excels: assured singing, an attractive tone, gratifying clarity and expression. I like the way she can slide easily to her high register. All the songs are attractive. Two, highly representative, stand out: La Priere du mort and Epiphanie from Trois Mélodies, op. 17. They are simply gloriously performed; Banse relishes the warm shimmering atmosphere of the orchestration. These works of ravishing beauty have most effective orchestral climaxes. I relish the arresting Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes, op. 37, a lengthy work at almost twenty-two minutes. This remarkable, large tone poem for orchestra, mixed double chorus and organ uses text taken from the Requiem Mass as backdrop to a programme evidently based on Edmond Haraucourt’s poem Vierges mortes. It is a tormented work. Koechlin explained it was “a cry of pity and revolt - not only young girls who die before their dreams are fulfilled but especially for those girls torn by fate from the midst of their lives”. One notices the characteristic shimmering atmosphere albeit with an undertow of deep melancholy; at point 12:13 it is contrasted with a burst into an unexpected dramatic climax representing the reality of death.
The third CD consists of two of Koechlin’s finest symphonic poems, La course de printemps, and Le buisson ardent cast in distinct parts each having a separate opus number. La course de printemps (The spring running), Op. 95 forms part of the set of symphonic poems Le livre de la jungle (The Jungle Book) that Koechlin composed at various intervals between 1899 and 1940. Le livre de la jungle is intended to evoke the story of Rudyard Kipling’s various jungle characters, in particular the man-cub Mowgli, raised in the forest by a she-wolf. With La course de printemps I had no problem experiencing Koechlin’s evocative atmosphere of a hot, heavy and steamy jungle, sometimes enchanting and sometimes frightening.
The mighty two-part symphonic poem Le buisson ardent (The burning bush), Op. 203 & Op. 171, is a principal contender for Koechlin’s most powerful symphonic creation. It has been described as containing the composer’s most innovative and exciting writing. Koechlin based Le buisson ardent on his friend Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe. In Op. 203, Koechlin’s evocation of a cold, empty, quiet and lifeless wasteland is particularly successful. This desolate section is almost immediately followed by a terrifying and damaging wind, the precursor to a harbinger of spring. Op. 171 was the first to be composed, in 1938; Op. 203 followed in 1945 to serve as a type of prologue. In Op. 171, the ethereal sound of the ondes Martinot dominates throughout. The final glorious climax commencing around point 19:14 (track 3) is a highlight of the score.
The fourth CD comprises two orchestral works, La Méditation de Purun Bhagat, op. 159 and a large-scale Les heures persanes, op. 65. Written over a thirty-year period beginning in 1903, La Méditation de Purun Bhagat is based on Kipling’s tale from The Second Jungle Book. Purun Dass is prime minister of a small Indian state who becomes a wandering hermit taking the name Purun Bhagat and gives an alert that saves a village from ruin caused by an avalanche. It is a typically atmospheric work. One senses the palpable feeling of peace, serenity and enlightenment exuded by Purun Bhagat. From around 9:05 a crescendo builds, culminating in a magnificent climax at 10:32-11:13, then gradually fades away peacefully. Next, there comes a huge work, lasting here over fifty-six minutes: the composer’s orchestration of his Les heures persanes (The Persian Hours), originally a cycle of piano miniatures Koechlin wrote around the time of the Great War. He was inspired by the travelogue Vers Ispahan by Pierre Loti, and by One Thousand and One Nights. I have a recording of the sixteen-movement cycle for piano. It is incredible how much the work benefits from Koechlin’s orchestration, successfully intensifying the evocation of an imagined journey through Persia with its cornucopia of exotic colours, fragrances and sounds.
Like the previous two discs, CD five contains a pair of large works, Les Bandar-log, op. 176 and L'offrande musicale sur le nom de B-A-C-H, op. 187. With its orchestration completed in 1940, Les Bandar-log is the final symphonic poem of Koechlin’s cycle of compositions based on Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Koechlin in a programme note wrote: “Les Bandar-log the ‘Monkey’s Scherzo’ is an extremely complex piece which calls for a precise and detailed explanation.” The booklet contains the written description that Koechlin provided, to which the actual timings from this recording have been inserted. It is hard to fault the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR who play with a precision and dazzling richness. Pianist Florian Hoelscher, an adroit player, is on fine form too.
One of my major highlights is the large scale L'offrande musicale sur le nom de B-A-C-H (Musical Offering on the name of BACH), op. 187 from 1942, orchestrated four years later. Koechlin highlighted Offrande and Le buisson ardent as works that he hoped to live to hear played in concert. He did not live long enough. Offrande was premièred in 1973, twenty-three years after his death. Biographer Robert Orledge wrote that Offrande confirmed that Koechlin’s contrapuntal powers were at their peak in 1942. This 2008 recording is only the second performance of the work cast in twelve sections, some of which are subdivided. Provided in the booklet are eighteen index points on the recording. In total the scoring requires one hundred and six players with varying instrument groups, and single instruments are employed in each of the sections. Only four sections require the full number of players. There are sections each for strings, string quartet, solo piano and solo organ. It is a lengthy work, almost forty-eight minutes. Although Koechlin uses a wide variety of instruments of regularly changing instrumental colour, there is little in the way of dynamic and emotional contrasts, which can make extended concentration difficult. With Heinz Holliger pulling everything together so well, my highlights are the final three sections, X, XI and XII (Finale) lasting 13:38 in total. Their dramatic expression comes as a welcome relief, notably the triumphant finale where the ondes Martinot played by Christine Simonin comes into its own.
The sixth CD contains five orchestral works. All but one are Koechlin’s orchestrations of works by Debussy, Fauré, Schubert and Chabrier. Originally intended for a ballet, Khamma is subtitled Légende dansée en trois scenes. Debussy was commissioned by Canadian dancer Maud Allan for a ballet based on the Egyptian legend. Khamma, a young, veiled woman, originally named Isis, dances at the feet of sun god Amun-Ra and dies. Debussy did not complete the score, and the contract with Allan became a serious legal conflict. In 1912/1213 Koechlin was commissioned to finish off the orchestration under Debussy’s supervision. Even if the work dips slightly in inspiration over its twenty-two-minute length, this masterly performance by Heinz Holliger and his players highlights Koechlin’s broad colour palette. Helpfully provided in the booklet is a programme of episodes with timings linked to this recording.
Next comes Koechlin’s own Sur les Flots lontains, op. 130 (sur un Chant donne de Cathérine Urner) from 1933. This five-minute score is a collaboration with his American pupil Catherine Urner who wrote the Chant donne. Koechlin prepared two arrangements, op. 130 bis for strings and op. 130, recorded here, for small orchestra. The is lovely playing by the Stuttgart players, although the work is not too memorable.
In 1898 Fauré completed his incidental music to Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pélléas et Mélisande and enlisted his pupil Koechlin to help him meet the deadline. Fauré later made his own enlargements and revisions to the score. Receiving its first recording here is Koechlin’s concert suite in seven movements. It contains the sixth section, Koechlin’s setting of Chanson de Mélisand, sung in Jack W. Mackail’s English translation from Koechlin’s expanded orchestration of 1936. Pélléas et Mélisande is a decidedly engaging work. The pièce de résistance is the gorgeous Sicilienne which is enduringly admired. British/German soprano Sarah Wegener sings Chanson de Mélisand and gives a quite lovely performance of high engagement.
It was Boris Kochno, director of Ballets Russes, who commissioned Koechlin to orchestrate Schubert’s solo piano work Wanderer Fantasy, D. 760. Taking over twenty-one minutes, it is not a work I normally enjoy hearing but Koechlin’s orchestration from 1933 sounds impressive. Much more to my taste is Chabrier’s virtuosic solo piano work Bourrée fantasque. It seems that in 1924 Koechlin was commissioned to orchestrate the score to replace a version prepared by Felix Mottl. Koechlin does quite a splendid job, certainly providing the bold French colouring that he felt was missing in Mottl’s account.
Returning to Koechlin’s own compositions, the final disc in the set contains Vers la voûte étoilée, op. 129 and the large symphonic poem Le Docteur Fabricius, op. 202. Koechlin described Vers la voûte étoilée (Toward the Starry Vault) a nocturne for orchestra as “an introverted work… although it grows much more sonorous towards the end”. Dedicated to astronomer Camille Flammarion and spanning twelve and a half minutes, this is an attractive piece very much in the Debussy style. A generally languid atmosphere permeates the score which according to the composer is intended to represent “a journey to very distant places far away from earth but not far away from human sentiment”. There are two crescendos building to most impressively dramatic climaxes. For me it is a miniature masterpiece; its relative neglect is hard to understand: an ideal work to commence a concert of orchestral music.
Koechlin’s last orchestral score, Le Docteur Fabricius, stands out. Composed between 1941 and 1946, it is a symphonic poem based on a novella of the same name by Koechlin’s uncle Charles Dollfus. Taking fifty-one minutes to perform here, it requires a very large orchestra including ondes Martinot. We are told in the notes that, as was his wish, Koechlin was able to attend the premiere of the work in 1949. He saw it as one of the “greatest events in my life as a composer”. There is a detailed programme of the work in the booklet, linked to the various episodes of the work with fifteen track numbers. At the heart of the story lie dreams and imagination. A MusicWeb review of this work explains more about Koechlin’s use of Dollfus’s tale. It is relatively easy to become captivated by the numerous passages of considerable colourful expression and dramatic climaxes together with some conspicuous use of Christine Simonin’s ondes Martinot. There is striking cinematic quality to the music. I hear substantial passages evocative at times of wide open spaces. I wondered if Koechlin knew Copland’s Billy the Kid and Rodeo. For such a long work, the longueurs I was expecting did not materialise. It is given a ravishing performance by the Stuttgart orchestra, full-toned, with a splendid range of colours and considerable detail.
Consistently throughout the set, the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart under Heinz Holliger’s assured direction shows its undoubted expertise and unity, cementing its credentials as a leading radio orchestra in what is acknowledged as extremely difficult music. Although it has the field virtually to itself, this outstanding set as an overview of Koechlin’s orchestral works is hard to beat. The pieces were recorded at three locations, Stadthalle Sindelfingen, Liederhalle Stuttgart and Funkstudio des SWR Stuttgart. The radio sound quality generally has satisfying consistency, clarity and balance, although very occasionally there is a touch hazy but most acceptable. A comprehensive booklet contains essays and helpful detail about each work, impressively written by Koechlin authorities Otfrid Nies and Robert Orledge. I am delighted to report that song texts are included with English translations. All in all, this is model presentation by SWR Music for all other labels to follow. This seems an opportune time to appeal for a reissue of Robert’s Orledge’s book Charles Koechlin (1867-1950): His Life and Works (Contemporary Music Studies).
After hearing this fascinating collection, it is impossible not to wonder why Koechlin is so rarely encountered on concert programmes. Even his best known major works The Seven Stars’ Symphony and the cycle Le Livre de la Jungle are known more by reputation than for actual concert performances. I would be an exciting prospect if the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR could be persuaded to record more Koechlin orchestral works, maybe in a series coupled with master composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Fauré.
CD 1 [53.11]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
1-4. Quatre Poèmes d'Edmond Haraucourt, op. 7 [18.52]
5. No. 2 - Deux Poèmes symphoniques, op. 43 [7.03]
6-7. No’s 1 & 2 - Poèmes d'Automne, op. 13 [13.46]
8. No. 1 - Deux Poèmes d'André Chénier, op. 23 [8.43]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) arranged Charles KOECHLIN
9. Chanson de Mélisande [3.40]
Juliane Banse (soprano)
CD 2 [60.56]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
1-2. No’s 1 & 2 - Trois Mélodies, op. 17 [13.29]
3-5. No’s 2, 3 & 4 - Études antiques, op. 46 [10.18]
6. No. 1 - Six Mélodies sur des poèsies d'Albert Samain, op. 31 [14.34]
7.Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes, op. 37* [21.38]
Juliane Banse (soprano)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart*
CD 3 [72.03]
1. La course de printemps, op. 95 (from: Le livre de la jungle) [33.11]
2. Le buisson ardent, op. 203 [12.43]
3. Le buisson ardent, op. 171 [25.54]
Christine Simonin (Ondes Martenot)
CD 4 [74.33]
1. La Méditation de Purun Bhagat, op. 159 [16.00]
2-17. Les heures persanes, op. 65 (orchestral version) [56.25]
CD 5 [68.24]
1. Les Bandar-log, op. 176 [20.24]
Florian Hoelscher (piano)
2-19. L'offrande musicale sur le nom de B-A-C-H, op. 187 [47.40]
Bernhard Hass (organ), Michael Korstick (piano), Christine Simonin (ondes Martinot)
CD 6 [77.22]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) arranged Charles KOECHLIN
1. Khamma [22.14]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
2. Sur les Flots lontains, op. 130 (sur un Chant donne de Cathérine Urner) [5.09]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) arranged Charles KOECHLIN
3.-9. Pélléas et Mélisande, op. 80 [21.21]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arranged Charles KOECHLIN
10-13. Fantasie C major, op. 15 [21.15]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894) arranged Charles KOECHLIN
14. Bourrée fantasque [6.39]
Sarah Wegener (soprano); Florian Hoelscher (piano)
CD 7 [63.53]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
1. Vers la voûte étoilée, op. 129 (Nocturne for orchestra) [12.31]
2-16. Le Docteur Fabricius, op. 202 (Symphonic poem after the novel by Charles Dollfus, 1941/1944) [50.57]
Christine Simonin (ondes Martenot)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR / Heinz Holliger