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Vincent d’INDY (1851-1931)
Piano Sonata in E, Op.63 [43:01]
Tableaux de Voyage (Excerpts) [23:19]
Jean-Pierre Armengaud (piano)
rec. 2018, Château des Faugs (Sonata) and Studio Malambo, Bois-Colombes (Tableaux)
GRAND PIANO GP756 [66:30]

Vincent d’Indy was an important figure in late 19th Century musical France, both as a composer and educator. But he is also regarded as an aristocratic arch-reactionary; his views on Varèse and Schoenberg were vitriolic, to put it mildly. However, he was a fervent admirer of Wagner and late in life wrote a book about his music. Alas, in it he displays a marked anti-Semitism that was all too common in the Europe of the time.

The Sonata in E, recorded here, is the first instrumental piece by Vincent d’Indy that I have heard and I have mixed feelings about it. Based on his orchestral works I had long arrived at the conclusion that he was not a great melodist. That opinion has been mightily reinforced by this CD.
Composed in 1907, the Sonata is a demanding 43-minute work that certainly does not pander to any notions of popularity. It probably explains its absence from the record catalogues although the notes opine that its technical difficulty is to blame. Whatever the reason, Grand Piano deserve thanks for arranging this recording; I am always glad to see companies recording out-of-the-way works.

I am as unfamiliar with the pianist as with the work itself. So, whether someone else could have made the piece hang together and its structure seem musically inevitable, I cannot say. In his preface to the notes, the pianist, Jean-Pierre Armengaud, says that he “has spent hundreds of hours rehearsing the piece…” and “...that it is one of the great sonatas in French music…”, and subsequently lavishes even more praise on it. I however, cannot spend that amount of time listening and so, in comparison, my comments are bound to be rather superficial.

Grand Piano have done this reviewer a favour by splitting the three-movement work into 23 tracks. This has allowed me to make a better stab at following its thematic evolution, especially since each track is described, often in some detail.

The first movement is in variation form, based on two primary themes, referred to in the notes as ‘A’ and ‘B’, and a third theme, ‘C’, introduced later on. The first theme, an energetic chordal affair, is easily the most memorable. So much so that when it recurs amid the musical thicket, the ear easily recognises it, in fact it is quite striking. The second theme, described as ‘expressive’ in the notes, I found to be so amorphous that recognising its reappearance was difficult, especially in varied form. I suppose that these comments give an idea of my reaction to the first movement, which I find to be too complex to be memorable. No doubt an analysis of the score by a musicologist would find all sorts of musical relationships that would prove d’Indy’s compositional expertise but such expertise doesn’t always lead to a happy listening experience. The second movement is a scherzo with two trios. It opens with toccata style writing and we are told by the notes that the first trio is a “warm Schubertian melody” whilst the second is biting in nature. I can certainly agree with the description of the second but invoking Schubert to describe the first theme is a bit too much for me. The finale is in sonata form in which the A and B themes from the first movement are decomposed, modified, reassembled and added to, to create a multi-thematic whole. Again, I find it lacks memorable material.

The disk is filled up by excerpts from the Tableaux de Voyage, composed after d’Indy had completed walking holidays across Germany. I hoped that they, representing a ‘less academic’ form, would have allowed d’Indy to relax into melody but, alas, no. Instead I found them to be uninspired in the extreme. Perhaps I would respond better to the ones that he orchestrated.

The recording sound is very good, although it quite often picks up the pianist’s vocalisations. Interestingly, the recording was made in the salon of the Château des Faugs, in Ardeche, which is the home built by the composer between 1884 and 1890. A photo shows it to be an imposing edifice and the booklet cover shows the room itself. As I mentioned the booklet is exemplary in its descriptions of the music and its structures, and the article by the pianist is interesting in itself. Finally, this is an important recording, particularly for those interested in French music written in the early years of the 20th Century. There appear to be two other recordings available but one, on Marco Polo, is only available second-hand at exorbitant prices and the other, on the Classic Talent label, is reviewed here.

Jim Westhead

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