A Cornucopia of Koechlin on SWR Music

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CHARLES KOECHLIN: CHAMBER MUSIC / SWR Music 19047CD

CD 1: First & Second Clarinet Sonatas.1 Les Confidence d’un joueur de Clarinette.2Idyll for 2 Clarinets.3 14 Pieces for Clarinet & Piano.1 Monodies for Solo Clarinet / Dirk Altmann, 3Rudolf Koenig, clarinetists; 1Florian Henschel, pianist; 2Sibylle Mahni Haas, French hornist; 2Gunter Teuffel, violist; 2Johanna Busch, cellist

CD 2: Flute Sonata.2 Épitaph de Jean Harlow.1,4. 6 Trio (Divertissement for 2 Flutes & Clarinet).1,3,7 Suite en Quatuor.1, 6,8 Trio for Clarinet, Flute & Bassoon.1, 5, 7 Sonata for 2 Flutes.1 2 Nocturnes for Flute, Horn & Piano.1, 6, 9 Sonatine Modale for Flute & Clarinet.1, 7 Piece for Flute & Piano (pour lecture à vue)1, 6 / 1Tatjana Ruhland, 2Barbara Hank, 3Christina Singer, flautists; 2Michael Baumann, 6Yaara Tal, pianist; Libor Sima, 4alto saxophonist/5bassoonist; 7Dirk Altmann, clarinetist; 8Mila Georgieva, violinist; 8Ingrid Philippi, violist; 9Joachim Bansch, French hornist

CD 3: Le Portrait de Daisy Hamilton.1 Oboe Sonata.2 Bassoon Sonata.3 Suite for Solo English Horn.4 Stèle funéraire for 3 Flutes in Turn5 / 1Dirk Altmann, clarinetist; 1Mako Okamoto, 2Hans-Georg Gaydoul, 3Inge-Susann Römhild, pianists; 2Alexander Ott, oboist; 3Eckart Hübner, bassoonist; 4Lajos Lencsés, English horn; 5Peter Thalheimer, alto flue/piccolo/flute

CD 4: Viola Sonata.1 Cello Sonata.2 20 Breton Songs for Cello & Piano2 / 1Paul Pesthy, violist; 1Chia Chou, 2Roglit Ishay, pianists; 2Peter Bruns, cellist

CD 5: Andante quasi Adagio. Nouvelles Sonatines, Opp. 20 & 87. L’Album de Lilian: Book I, Nos. 2, 3 & 5; Book II, Nos. 2, 4 & 8. Sonatine, Op. 87. Paysages et Marines / Michael Korstick, pianist

CD 6: Les Heures Persanes / Michael Korstick, pianist

CD 7: Danses pour Ginger, 2 excerpts. Sonatines, Op. 59 Nos. 2 & 3. Andante con moto. L’Ancienne Maison de campagne. Pièce pour piano, Op. 83b. Esquisses Op. 41, First Series / Michael Korstick, pianist

Poor Charles Koechlin…born at the right time but died at the wrong one. He was original but not entirely, a composer who bridged the gap between the first impressionists, Debussy, Ravel and Dukas, and such later French composers as Poulenc and Françaix, and somehow he got lost in the shuffle. He also had the misfortune of not dying young and not having a “hit tune” as the other three did to carry his fame worldwide.

It also didn’t help him that he got a late start—his first surviving pieces weren’t written until he was in his mid-20s—and never modernized his style, as Ravel did in his last decade. By 1938, Ravel had been dead a year but Koechlin, then 71, would continue to live and write music for another 12 years. By the time he died in 1950, most people had forgotten that he was still alive, if they knew about him at all. Like British composer York Bowen, he simply outlived the era in which he was considered something of a modernist and died an anachronism. In my half-century of listening to and reviewing classical music, I only heard his name mentioned once and did not discover his music until I reviewed Ralph van Raat’s superb recording of Les Heures Persanes, one of his undisputed masterpieces, about a decade ago.

Part of his problem is that he was an artistic soul born to a family of mechanics, inventors and engineers. His interests were astronomy, natural science, mathematics, the novels of Jules Verne and music, but his father insisted that he study to become a civil engineer. He only got out of it the hard way, by coming down with tuberculosis and almost dying before he was sent to a sanitarium in Algeria for several months. By the time he returned to school he was too far behind in his engineering studies, which suited him just fine, but now his father decided that he was to become either an artillery or a naval officer, both of which he detested. Like nearly all the French impressionists, including the equally underrated Florent Schmitt and Reynaldo Hahn, Koechlin came out of Wagner, particularly the Wagner of Tristan und Isolde, the Ring and Parsifal, which opened the door for continual modulations and what would be called “rootless” chords. Because of his father’s stubborn insistence that he not pursue music as a career and his health problems, Koechlin didn’t really get started on his serious music studies until he was 23, which accounts for his late production.

The music herein is not all impressionistic but it is all very French. Much of it, in fact, is tonal, but Koechlin had very much found his voice by the time he wrote these works and thus even the smallest piece in this collection is a gem in its own way. The first CD is entirely devoted to music written for the clarinet, much of it in solos or small duos (playing with piano or, in one instance, French horn). SWR Music has assembled this collection, and the companion volume of his orchestral works (which I will review separately), from broadcast performances and radio studio recordings made by musicians of the German radio orchestras. The fact that such a group of predominantly German artists would have an interest, let alone an affinity, for playing the music of a Frenchman may sound odd, but I am here to tell you that these performances have exactly the right relaxation, lyricism and limpidity required. A quote in the booklet from our principal clarinetist, Dirk Altmann, gives you an idea of how highly these musicians regard Koechlin:

Koechlin takes us through the history of music almost academically, from the old Renaissance masters to his contemporaries Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He is no stranger to any style of composition: there are polytonal works as well as experiments with atonality. His main youthful influences were Gounod and Chopin, followed by Chabrier and his teacher, Fauré. Koechlin’s compositions also make no secret of his deep affinity with Bach.

Although Koechlin first attempted composition at the age of fifteen, it was not until later, around the age of 50, that his “technique du développement,” or the “spinning out” of musical motifs, became fully developed. The Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano (op. 85 and 86), to whose classical sonata form Koechlin adds new elements in masterly fashion, date from this creative phase. The songlike opening of op. 86 gives little indication of the paths that are to lead us through a lush jungle of creativity, via an arabesque-like middle movement to a brilliant finale. The work was composed for Louis Cahuzac, an outstanding clarinettist of his day, who gave the première of the Second Sonata in 1926. Sadly it was not until after Koechlin’s death that his First Clarinet Sonata was premièred by Jean Tastenoe, in Belgium in February 1969.

Altmann’s tone, cool and liquid, sounds very French in style except for the fact that he plays with no vibrato. This probably stems from years of his being browbeaten into playing with straight tone in nearly every pre-1850 orchestral work, which is wrong but no one seems to care. Nonetheless, he is also a very expressive player, managing to color and shade his playing with a wide range of dynamics, including various hues even within the range between pianissimo and piano. The Monodies for Solo Clarinet are particularly interesting music, covering a wide range of moods and rhythms, and Altmann plays them with great style and understanding. His various partners in these performances are also sensitive, thoughtful musicians who understand Koechlin’s style. Several of these performances had been issued previously by SWR as single discs, e.g. the Chamber Music With Flute on SWR 93157 (2006) and the three volumes of Michael Korstick playing his piano works.

The Flute Sonata which begins CD 2 has the feel of a piece by Fauré or Hahn yet contains elements that could only have been created by Koechlin, for instance the chord modulations in the solo piano moments and the melodic line that suddenly veers off into unresolved moments. There’s also a triple-meter passage in the third movement that sounds almost like a British sailing song. I was particularly struck by the elegance and sheer beauty of the Epitaphe pour Jean Harlow (though Koechlin’s biggest film-actress crush was Lilian Harvey), where he miraculously gets a flute and an alto saxophone to blend…plus the music itself is highly creative, the harmony continually shifting, not just a puff piece tossed off casually. The opening of the Trio (Divertissement for 2 Flutes & Clarinet) has a wonderful forlorn quality about it that is not entirely relieved when he has the three instruments playing together except in the chirpy, upbeat third movement. The Suite et quatuour is an almost pastoral piece, warm and genial like Koechlin himself. So too are the Wind Trio and Sonata for Two Flutes, light, buoyant and fun to hear. By contrast, the two Nocturnes for Flute, Horn & Piano are elegantly etched like the down of a thistle.

The clarinet returns temporarily at the start of CD 3 for the Portrait of Daisy Hamilton, but it’s the Oboe Sonata that wakes you up and makes you take notice. The Bassoon Sonata is also very good, in which Koechlin makes the instrument actually sound jolly (a difficult task!). The Suite for Solo English Horn is a much more serious piece, one of the few I’ve heard that fully exploits the good qualities of this often forlorn-sounding instrument. Koechlin uses complex harmonic changes here in the playing of a single-voice instrument. What a shame that jazz alto player Charlie Parker never knew or met Koechlin; he’d have been exactly the kind of composer who could have pointed him in the new direction he was seeking. This disc closes with the Stèle funéraire for 3 Flutes in Turn, written in Koechlin’s last year of life (1950) and still very much a serious piece in his characteristic style. He also manages to make the most of the timbral contrasts between the alto flute, piccolo flute and “regular” flute while maintaining a consistent musical progression that never wavers or loses its train of thought.

CD 4 brings us to the works for viola and cello, and here Koechlin surprises us by starting the viola very low in its range for its sonata, so much so that it almost sounds like a ghostly cello. Indeed, the feeling of ghostliness remains throughout the first movement, which is atmospheric in a strange, moody sort of way. The piano part is also pitched rather low to emphasize the eeriness, playing minor-key modes and strange chords. Somehow, I can’t picture Lionel Salter or William Primrose playing this music. In the second movement, Koechlin sets up a bitonal series of swirling eighths for the piano while the viola protests above it. Eventually the argument truly erupts in a volatile exchange of clashing musical ideas as Koechlin pushes the envelope before returning to quietude, then into an ecstatic and not-so-dark forte passage. Ironically, the third and fourth movements are a shade more conventional, although the last recaptures some of the moody quirkiness of the first (but in a more relaxed and less eerie vein). Interestingly, in the cello sonata, Koechlin pitches the instrument fairly high in its range most of the time so it sounds more like a viola! The music here is more “Debussy-ish” in its own way; perhaps he liked his older colleague’s cello sonata and used some of its form and style for his own (there are certain resemblances between the two). The third and last movement is the most unique, as it tells its story in a sort of musical shorthand, the themes breaking up and off into silence fairly often, then pushing the music into bitonal realms when it continues. The 20 Breton Songs for Cello and Piano are, of course, defined and to a certain extent controlled by the material being used. Koechlin’s gift was in rescoring the harmony (quite evident in the third song, for instance) and writing variants on these tunes which he then pitched in various parts of the cello’s range. The seventh tune is particularly interesting, as it seems to grind along stoically, whereas the eighth is mercurial and flowing. I must give special praise to cellist Peter Bruns for his complete command of both his instrument’s resources and an intuitive grasp of the music’s contours.

CDs 5-7 belong to Michael Korstick, a pianist I’ve been extremely fond of since he released his superb set of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas more than a decade ago. Korstick is also a master of Debussy’s music, so it stands to reason that he’d have an affinity for Koechlin. His style is a bit more “wide-awake” than that of many French pianists, but he still understands the underlying feel of this music extremely well. That being said, the Sonatines are fairly lightweight music, albeit fun, and the Paysages et marines are lovely, well-crafted and atmospheric music, played to a T by Korstick. The 10th of these sounds like an Irish jig! Ironically, the meagerly-skilled “actress” Lilian Harvey (pretty much a blond bimbo who put on a “screw me” act) inspired Koechlin to some of his loveliest and most delicate piano works in his two “Albums” devoted to her, and Korstick lavishes them with multiple shades of tone color. The later Sonatines are elegant, bouncy, charming music, almost like salon pieces from the turn of the 20th century.

The Persian Hours is, of course, one of Koechlin’s great masterpieces, a sensitive work of meditation and inner peace, which is ironic considering that today Persia is Iran, one of the largest centers of state-sponsored terrorism. The music is slow, atmospheric, almost atypical of Koechlin, more of a “mood” piece than most of what he wrote (except for moments like “En vue de la ville”), but unfailingly mesmerizing and brilliant, particularly the 12th piece (“Arabesques”) which is mostly a fugue. Korstick plays it superbly, giving us a performance on par with that of Ralph van Raat (Naxos).

The most unusual qualities of The Persian Hours are that Koechlin uses no key signatures, no time signatures or metronome markings. The first piece, simply marked “Lent,” features no less than 19 quarter-note beats in its first bar, irregularly divided using dotted quarters (some tied to regular quarter-note chords) while the left hand plays a series of single eighth notes, divided in groups of 4, 3, 3, 2, 3, 4, 4 (with tone cluster chords played above the single eighths), an eighth note rest, then 4, 5, 2 and 3. The second bar in the work has but three beats divided into a double-dotted eighth followed by a 16th, then a half note. Quixotically, there then follows a rest mark of indeterminate length. The third bar appears to be in 5/4, unevenly divided and including a five-eighth-note group in the left hand played against a conventional grouping of 4 eighth notes in the right. This kind of musical jigsaw puzzle can drive even the most professional and sophisticated pianist insane, since it has no specific rhyme or reason about it. It is music of feeling and as close to a rejection of “music as mathematics” as could possibly be done.

Persian p 1

The last CD covers more small piano pieces, the most substantial of which are the Esquisses, although the Dances for Ginger (Rogers), yet another of the blonde movie stars he was infatuated with in his later years, are exceptionally fine music. Hey, who cares as long as the music is good, right? The second of the “Ginger Dances” bears a strange resemblance to Satie’s Gymnopedies while the first two of the 5 Sonatines, Op. 59 sound more like dance music. L’Ancienne Maison de campagne or The Old Country House consists of 13 little gems, each of which could easily serve as an encore piece, yet which as a set presents us with a charming mental image of a lost world. Today the old country house would be overrun by Muslim “refugees.” At times the delicacy and “space” in this music puts you in mind of The Persian Hours.

I’m not sure why Korstick only recorded the first 12 Esquisses rather than the full set of 24. Surely he could have omitted some of the smaller and less consequential pieces from the first or third CD to make room for the remaining dozen? I say this because he does such a superb job with them that I wished he had finished the set.

All in all, then, this is an outstanding collection of Koechlin’s piano and chamber music—not complete, but comprehensive nonetheless. To my mind it makes all other Koechlin collections pretty much superfluous.

Onward and upward to the orchestral music!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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