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Pascal ZAVARO (b. 1959)
La Bataille de San Romano (2012) [11:30]
Into the Wild, for cello and orchestra (2016) [17:09]
Pastorale, for oboe, bassoon and orchestra (2010) [15:18]
La Machine de Trurl – orchestral suite (2015) [28:03]
Bruno Philippe (cello)
Mathieu Petitjean (oboe)
Franck Lavogez (bassoon)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo/Julien Masmondet
rec. 2017, Yakov Kreizberg Hall, Auditorium Rainier III, Monaco
CLAVES 50-1813 [72:00]

Pascal Zavaro is a French composer of broadly the same generation as Pascal Dusapin, Marc-André Dalbavie and Nicolas Bacri. His music isn’t nearly as well represented in the catalogues as his peers’, nor does it share a great deal with their work in stylistic terms. ‘Spectral’ has become something of a lazy description for many living French composers and it certainly doesn’t apply to Zavaro, whose music is direct, joyful, often dance-like, colourfully orchestrated and ‘challenging’ in the most agreeable way. Listeners who have responded positively to the music of his younger compatriot Guillaume Connesson, for example, will almost certainly find much to enjoy here.

In fact my only previous exposure to his music came in the form of a disc, which emerged a decade ago on the seemingly defunct Densité 21 label, which was apparently overseen by Radio France. That issue (DENSITÉ 21 DE 003 - review) failed to impress me at the time, largely due (I seem to recall) to a really dry recording. On the basis of the present Claves issue, I would really like to revisit it, but my copy of the disc seems to have gone AWOL…..nor does it appear straightforward to acquire it secondhand, alas.

The four works on the current disc share a very Gallic sensibility – all are characterised by lucid orchestration in the finest French tradition. Moreover Zavaro seems to infuse his work with a pronounced rhythmic energy, which may derive from rock music (or even American minimalism), but there is at its heart real elegance and real appreciation of what it takes to create ravishing and riveting orchestral sounds. The programme begins with La Bataille de San Romano, an eleven minute tone poem inspired by Paolo Uccello’s triptych of paintings;, three massive canvases depicting elements of a 15th century battle between the armies of Florence and Siena (see them here). Scored for a Beethoven-sized orchestra, the piece unfolds in a slow-fast-slow arch, which, according to the composer’s note, corresponds to “…the different stages of combat; the wait, then the outburst of energy, followed by silence and stupefaction”. Its haunting opening conveys a kind of restless apprehension, a halo of high strings punctuated by hints of distant trumpet fanfares. The skirmish itself is more energised, the brass motifs more in-one’s-face and pricked by Janáček-like timpani. Spring-loaded rhythms clash and intersect dramatically, before the brass retreat and the orchestra revert to long, doleful chords, as the work limps to its none-too-triumphal conclusion. I suspect La Bataille de San Romano would make an unusual and evocative concert overture; its components are ornately conceived in a manner that somehow reflects the distinctive ambience of Uccello’s Florentine masterpiece. The Monte Carlo orchestra under Julien Masmondet conveys it all with vigour and élan, while the recording is generously detailed and enjoyably warm.

Two very different concertos form the core of this programme. Zavaro’s second cello concerto, entitled “Into the Wild” is enigmatically and ambiguously dedicated ‘To free species’. The tension of the work lies in the contrast between the challenging virtuosity of the almost raw solo part, projected with unflappable confidence by the young cellist Bruno Philippe, and its luxuriantly crafted orchestral accompaniment. The music played by these protagonists at times seems to emerge from diametrically opposed sonic worlds: the soloist revelling in the rapid passagework and nimble fingering required by Zavaro’s demanding writing, the orchestral part on the other hand richly coloured and often more delicately textured – Zavaro certainly has a deft way with tuned percussion. Philippe especially relishes the material that lies in the lowest register of his instrument. This concerto is both eventful and dramatic and at times adopts a wilfully (and not disagreeable) cinematic posture. The slower music is often beguilingly eerie and siren-like – toward the end of the concerto’s central section there is a fascinating, memorable episode involving descending staccato flute scales, which cumulatively expand to engulf the whole orchestra. Ultimately Into the Wild defies easy description, but it is both compelling and memorable and delivered here with real exhilaration on the part of both soloist and band. At times I felt the busy cello part was somewhat overwhelmed by the almost dizzying detail of the orchestral part, but the consequence of that is that one just tries to listen more carefully, which ultimately is no bad thing. I suspect, however, that this work presented something of a challenge to the Claves engineers.

Zavaro has granted his graceful, nature-inspired double concerto for oboe and bassoon the rather unassuming title Pastorale- but frankly this is music that stands squarely on its own two feet and has no need to cower beneath an attention-grabbing title. The work is launched by gentle, ethereal percussion (I can’t work out if this is a triangle, or cowbells, or a combination of both – either way it’s another distinctive example of Zavaro’s flair for orchestration) before the soloists tumble in almost clumsily. Ripe and rather rustic, they revel in gentle figurations and rhythms that evoke some of Thomas Ades’s more reflective music. While these two instruments may seem rather stereotyped in terms of evoking a rural ambience, Zavaro’s inspiration leads them towards more unusual terrain. At times the oboe sings in a peculiarly high register, while the bassoon’s accompaniment rarely is in parallel and often attractively gawky, as unpredictable perhaps as the natural world the piece attempts to encapsulate. The orchestration is appropriately limpid and aestival. While much of the music of Pastorale is haunting and elegiac, the work picks up momentum towards its conclusion to the point that the sound of keys being pressed rapidly by the soloists invigorates rather than irritates. Messrs Petitjean and Lavogez certainly make the most of their moments in the sun – I’m unaware of any other double concertos for this particular pairing and Zavaro’s delightful piece certainly deserves the widest currency.

Originally a piece for narrator and orchestra (for children and grown-ups), based on Stanisław Lem’s allegorical satire, La machine de Trurl, herec is presented as an orchestral suite of eleven brief episodes. The plot concerns two rival mad scientists, one of whom invents a machine, which will do anything as long as it begins with N. He shows it off to his rival, and challenges him to test it. Needless to say this quickly descends into a madcap apocalyptic scenario – this could almost be a satire about the destructive potential of the internet, although Lem devised it in the 1960s. While Zavaro’s music plumbs no great depths (nor should it) it bristles with vivacity, wit and colour. Highlights include the opening Le grand constructeur, a brief, phantasmagorical orchestral ride that shows off Zavaro’s arranging skills to the max; the following Fabrication de nacre evokes the clanking sounds of the crazy boffin’s workshop – this is almost cartoon music in the style of a 21st century Scott Bradley. The fourth panel, La nébuleuse blanche is an appropriately other-worldly, horn-led elegy, while the two central movements La nation and L'antimatière showcase the contrasts between Zavaro’s manic and languorous approaches to composition. The whole suite is a delight - abundant with fresh melodic charm and built around the considerable skills of a born arranger. I found it very French – almost a half-hour Gallic shrug - one imagines that if Milhaud or Poulenc were around today, this is the kind of music they would write. Again Masmondet and his orchestra are persuasive advocates for Zavaro’s music and seem utterly at home with his distinctive flavours. I get the impression they had an absolute ball playing all of these pieces.

Claves are to be congratulated for promoting the work of a French composer, whose relative neglect is something of a mystery to this reviewer, at least on the basis of this disc. These four pieces provide very different perspectives on Zavaro’s versatile muse, yet they are self-evidently products of the same distinctive voice. Those interested in new French orchestral music, and who seek an alternative to the cerebrality of Dusapin or Murail, to name but two, are urged to investigate without delay.

Richard Hanlon


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