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French Music for String Orchestra
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Sur les flots lointains, Op. 130 (1933) [5:22]
Guillaume LEKEU (1870-1894)
Adagio for strings (1891) [3:39]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Hymne for ten strings (1920) [7:07]
Jacques CASTÉRÈDE (1926-2014)
Symphony No. 1 for strings (1952) [23:02]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Sarabande in E, Op. 93 (1892) [4:37]
Symphony No. 2 for strings with trumpet ad libitum (1941) [26:06]
Ciconia Consort/Dick van Gasteren
rec. 2018, Westvest Kerk, Schiedam, The Netherlands

Brilliant Classics has brought together an album of French music for string orchestra. Six works spanning some sixty years are performed by Dutch string orchestra Ciconia Consort under its artistic director Dick van Gasteren.

Parisian Charles Koechlin, a renowned orchestrator, studied at Paris Conservatoire where Jules Massenet was his composition teacher. The opening work on the disc, Sur les flots lointains, is presented here in its version for string orchestra. Written in 1933, this five-minute tone poem is a collaboration with Koechlin’s American pupil Catherine Urner who wrote the Chant donné. This is a very atmospheric work, intense and melancholic yet most engaging. (To those who wish to hear more of Koechlin’s music, I can recommend a splendid seven CD set of orchestral works on SWR Music – review.)

Guillaume Lekeu was a Walloon composer who moved to Paris, where he studied with both César Franck and Vincent d’Indy. He died before his time, aged only twenty-four. A devotee of Wagner operas and highly influenced by Franck, Lekeu was said to favour intimate forms of music, and had a proclivity for chamber music. He is represented here by his striking Adagio pour cordes from 1891, an affecting elegy with a brooding tread, full of aching yearning.

Arthur Honegger, a Swiss national, was born in France and resided in Paris for most of his life. He studied at Paris Conservatoire where his teachers included Charles-Marie Widor and d’Indy. The Hymne for ten strings from 1920 is a relatively early work in his output, written around a couple of years after he left the Conservatoire. Performed here by a complement of twenty strings, it is an extremely dark and profound work, bleak and almost forbidding but it makes quite an impact. Honegger’s second work on this disc is the three-movement Symphony No. 2 for strings and trumpet, commissioned by Paul Sacher to mark the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester. It written in 1941 during the time Honegger had remained in Paris throughout the German occupation. Like in many of the works on this album, the mood is dark and intense, yet also inhabits a rather stifling atmosphere that feels unsettling. The last movement Vivace non troppo has an unrelenting feel of rhythmic forward momentum, with an atmosphere of menace, almost Stygian in character. Heard only in the finale, the solo trumpet played by Rianne Schoemaker delivers a stark contrast of triumph.

Jacques Castérède, a Parisian by birth, studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Tony Aubin and Olivier Messiaen, and won the Prix de Rome. He wrote his four-movement Symphony No. 1 for string orchestra in 1952. Immediately striking in the opening movement Modéré are the rich and weighty low strings in this expressive and darkly tense work which evokes a cinematic quality. Fresh and rhythmic, the second movement Vif et rude must surely be jazz-influenced. Deeply emotional, the slow movement has a shadowy sense of foreboding. Energetic and buoyant, the final movement Vif et décidé feels fraught; it evokes a sense of sliding unnervingly forward.

A Parisian by birth, Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the greatest composers France has produced. From his prodigious output, here is the 1892 Sarabande from the Sarabande and Rigaudon Op. 93, his only composition for string orchestra. In this stylish performance, everything feels courteous and emotionally undemanding. There are some lovely passages for solo violin performed by leader Emmy Storms.

The sound is cool, clear and well balanced. Gérard Billaudot has written the booklet essay which provides reasonable background to the works. On its CD debut, Ciconia Consort and Dick van Gasteren excel. They show an authenticity that feels totally at the service of the music. Its impressive unity and full string tone provide an ideal foundation for the alliance between attention to form and appreciation for the coloration of the writing. Compelling from start to finish, French music for string orchestra could hardly be better served.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Stephen Barber


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