A Koechlin Cornucopia, Part 2

Koechlin cover

KOECHLIN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS / SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart; Heinz Holliger, conductor on all tracks / SWR Music 19046CD

CD 1: KOECHLIN: Quatre Poèmes de Edmond Haraucourt.3 Deux Poèmes Symphoniques: II. Vers la plage lontaine. Poèmes d’Automne.1,2 2 Poems d’André Chenier: I. La Jeune Tarantine. 2 FAURÉ: Chanson de Mélisande (orch. Koechlin)3 / 1Gunter Tueffel, vla d’amore; 2Tatjana Ruhland, fl; 2Libor Sima, bsn; 2Joachim Bänsch, Fr-hn; 2Renie Yamahata, hrp; 2Mila Giorgieva, David Ma, vln; 2Paul Pesthy, vla; 2Ansgar Schneider, cel; 3Juliane Banse, sop

CD 2: KOECHLIN: Trois Mélodies: I & II.1 Études Antiques. 6 Mélodies sur des Poésies a’Albert Samain: Le sommeil de Canope.1 Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes2 / 1Juliane Banse, sop; 2SWR Vocal Ensemble

CD 3: KOECHLIN: The Jungle Book: La Course de printemps. Le Buisson ardent1 / 1Christine Simonin, ondes Martenot

CD 4: KOECHLIN: The Jungle Book: La Méditation de Purun Bhagat. Les Heures Persanes (orch. 1921)

CD 5: KOECHLIN: The Jungle Book: Les Bandar-log. Offrande musicale sur le nom de BACH 1 / 1Bernard Haas, org; 1Michael Korstick, pn; 1Christine Simonin, ondes Martenot

CD 6: DEBUSSY: Khamma (orch. Koechlin). KOECHLIN: Sur les Flots lontains. FAURÉ: Pelléas et Mélisande (orch. Koechlin).1 SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy, D. 760 (orch. Koechlin).2 CHABRIER: Bourrée Fantasque (orch. Koechlin) / 1Sarah Wegener, sop; 2Florian Hoelscher, pn

CD 7: KOECHLIN: Vers la voûte étoilée. Le Docteur Fabricius1 / 1Christine Simonin, ondes Martenot

This, the orchestral portion of SWR Music’s massive new Koechlin release, covers the composer’s original works as well as his orchestrations of others’ music (Fauré, Debussy, Schubert and Chabrier). Like the chamber and piano music set, it is comprehensive but not complete; indeed, it is even less complete than its companion. For whatever reason, it omits several pieces in Koechlin’s lifelong musical obsession with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, though it does include the longest piece in the series, La Course de printemps, as well as La Méditation de Purun Bhagat and the last one, Les Bandar-log. But why omit the others? Also missing are the Partita for Chamber Orchestra and Cinq Chorales dans le modes du Moyen Âge, neither of which are particularly long and could have fit on the first CD in this set which runs only 53 minutes. Very curious! Of course, David Zinman recorded the complete Jungle Book back in 1994 for RCA Victor with the Berlin Radio Symphony and singers Iris Vermillion and Johan Botha, an album that sold very poorly because the music was far too complex and over the heads of most Jungle Book fans, but that shouldn’t have mattered in this case.

Popular or not, the other sections of Koechlin’s travelogue are masterful music that deserved another recording. Koechlin was not merely fascinated but obsessed with Mowgli, the “man cub” raised by a feral wolf, once writing that he “has the power, the élan, the youthfulness and courage of a Siegfried, but is wiser, not so pretentious; he does not try to set himself up as master of the world’s destiny.” And as Heinz Holliger, the conductor on this set, put it,

What fascinates me first in this music is the fact that it does not come forward. I believe that it is totally open music, into which one can “fall,” where one can penetrate the very pores of the sound. But it does not come to fetch me, it does not try hard to please me. It has a certain crystalline transparency as well as a preference for unfolding very slowly. And this way of dealing with sound and movement was probably totally alien to France and, at the time, it would have been even more alien in Germany. And today, maybe, we are ready to appreciate that better. We cannot afford to do without these works.

Holliger also omits both of Koechlin’s numbered symphonies, the “Seven Stars” Symphony, and such orchestral pieces as Sur le flots lontains, Walpurgis Night and Hymne à la nuit, the Poem for Horn and Orchestra and the Ballade for Piano and Orchestra. Why? Youth wants to know!

After such a description, we are stunned to hear this collection open with a bang—quite literally, an orchestral explosion of the sort that seldom appears in Koechlin’s works. The 4 Poems of Edmond Haraucourt is a short orchestral song cycle, sung well by soprano Juliane Banse despite a tendency towards hardness when she opens up in her top range, After the explosive opening, however, these are songs quietude and beckoning, just as Holliger described, but much more melodic than usual for Koechlin, on a par with the similar cycles of Chausson and Duparc. By contrast, the Vers la plage lontaine from the 2 Symphonic Poems (but why not record both of them?) fits Holliger’s description perfectly: it is elusive, beckoning music like the most delicate creation of Debussy. Banse is also excellent on the equally Chausson-like Poemes d’Automne, Koechlin’s orchestration of Gabriel Fauré’s Chanson de Mélisande and, at the start of CD 2, two of the three Mélodies. The third of the Études Antiques has an almost pseudo-Chinoiserie sound about the orchestration while the fourth sounds very close to Debussy.

The Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes, which closes out CD 2, is by far the most fascinating and complex work yet heard in this set. Written for mixed double chorus, organ and orchestra, it was described by the composer as a symphonic poem that “translates the feelings, evokes the visions suggested to us by such a cruel and especially unjust loss: the death of a burgeoning soul full of hope and beauty. First there is the funeral procession described by Haraucourt …Then, as if in a coun­try chapel with shrill bells, in an atmosphere heavy with sighs and flowers, after a long plaint played by the orchestra, the voice of the choirs rises up. In a long crescendo of the orchestra, choir and organ (‘Ad te omnis caro veniat …’), the voices proclaim the irreversible final destiny of the body; and they also speak of the eternal light promised in ex­change. The song fades into the distance, the pale voices of the flutes recall the funeral march from the beginning. As if floating above a tender memory, comes the apparition of far-off voices: dejected and disconsolate appeasement in which all thought ceases.” Holliger surprisingly finds exactly the right tone and temperament for this music, making it float across the recesses of our mind as it unfolds in its own manner and style. Nothing is exaggerated, yet at the same time nothing is slighted in his superb reading.

Likewise, Holliger’s superb reading of La Course de printemps from The Jungle Book, even more detailed and atmospheric than Zinman’s recording, makes you sad that he didn’t record the whole thing. Holliger also achieves a more dynamic reading, full of drama, despite the composer’s insistence on frequent pauses in the course of its 33-minute length, so that it almost sounds like a self-contained suite.

On the other hand, what we now consider part 2 of La Buisson ardent was actually composed first, in 1938, and uses the strange instrument known as an ondes Martenot which is actually a keyboard version of a Theremin. The music is wild and woolly, depicting the life of an artist, and Koechlin pulled out all the stops in orchestrating it. What is now part 1 was composed in 1945 as a response to the ending of World War II; it is more of an episodic fantasy like La Course de printemps and much in the same musical style. Thus we have a somewhat episodic, slow-moving piece as an introduction to its swifter, tauter, more exciting companion. Interestingly, in the liner notes Holliger concurs with my opinion, stating that after performing the two large sections of The Jungle Book in concert he wanted to find a companion piece and so settled on this as a sequel. He, too, notes the similarities between part 1 of this piece and La Course de printemps. But Heinz, why didn’t you just perform or record all of The Jungle Book? Nonetheless, the music is superb, illustrating succinctly just how unique his use of falling chromatics was, and how he used this harmonic movement as a pivot for his melodic variants. Note, too, the odd harmonic passage at 9:32 and how he uses it to impact the increased volume and tension at this point, followed by a few minutes of relaxation and contemplation. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a rather jolly but bitonal tune arises, like an Irish reel on absinthe. Koechlin had the odd habit of writing music that often sounded as if it had come to an end, but without the preparation the listener needed to accept it as an ending, only to suddenly start up again 10 or 12 seconds later with something related but different. You never knew where you were going with him.

CD 4 begins with the third of his Jungle Book pieces, La méditation de Purun Bhagat. inspired by the one story located outside the jungle. It is largely a slow, meditative piece, and Holliger conducts it even more slowly that Zinman did in 1994. FYI, the Jungle Book pieces missing from this compilation are the Three Poems, Op. 18 (Berceuse phoque, Chanson de nuit dans la jungle and Chant de Kala Nag), which contain vocals by a mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone with chorus, and La loi de la jungle, Op. 175. This is followed by a real rarity, the composer’s own 1921 orchestration of his earlier piano suite, The Persian Hours. It was a land he never visited, drawing his inspiration from Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau’s Nouvelles asiatiques, bits of 1,001 Nights and especially Pierre Loti’s 1904 travelogue, Vers Ispahan. Interestingly, Koechlin’s orchestration, though soft-grained and mysterious, uses the strings in such a way that they produce a sort of edgy shimmer, a technique he may have borrowed from Stravinsky’s Firebird. The effect is somewhat less opaque than one might expect, evoking the glare of heat on the desert sands rather than some sort of mysterious cloud formation.

Holliger’s performance of Les Bandar-log is considerably slower than Zinman’s, 20:43 to his 16:31, but no less atmospheric or exciting in the fast passages, and the almost incredible sonics here give the music greater clarity and transparency of texture. At certain moments, such as 14:45, the music almost sounds as if it’s running backwards. Koechlin’s Offrande musicale sur le nom de BACH has to be the weirdest and least Bach-like of all musical tributes to Johann Sebastian, using a large orchestra with a prominent saxophone part, sliding chromatic harmony and strange musical forms. The second piece, for instance, “Canons sur le nom be BACH,” features high winds playing against a tuba and ends with a cymbal crash. In the third piece a fugue is set up but the orchestration is that of a large string orchestra, whereas the second fugue (band 6) is a weird, polytonal piece written for a handful of winds and French horn that sounds much more like Messiaen than Bach. “Feuillet d’album” (band 8) is a piano solo, also heavily chromatic. There’s a full description of the music in the booklet, but just reading about it doesn’t do it justice. You have to hear this piece to believe it!

CD 6 consists mostly of orchestral transcriptions of others’ music, the only original piece being Sur le flots lontains. Debussy’s ballet Khamma, which he wrote on commission and didn’t care much for, was passed on to his colleague to orchestrate for him; it is probably Koechlin’s best-known orchestral arrangement, and Holliger does a superb job of conducting it. Fauré gave Koechlin carte blanche to orchestrate his Pelléas et Mélisande suite, which contains some excellent music (particularly the “Mort de Mélidande”) and a lot that is fairly uninteresting. But hey, my cats liked it, so what the heck! Much more problematic is Koechlin’s orchestral arrangement of a piece that neither wanted nor needed it, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. This was a commission and made him some much-needed money, but although Holliger tries to spruce it up with his conducting energy I admit not liking it very much. Sorry, Charles. On the other hand, Chabrier’s Bourée fantasque jumps to vivid life in Koechlin’s bright, lvely orchestral garb.

Vers la voûte étoilée is another of Koechlin’s impressionist pieces, this one a bit more in the style of Debussy. It’s a nocturne for orchestra that recalled his earlier love of astronomy. It is the most overtly romantic of his compositions, recalling some of Mahler’s slow movements in its lyrical quality and use of harmony. The CD, and the set, ends with his “musical testament,” the huge orchestral suite Le Docteur Fabricius. It was composed from 1941 to 1944, orchestrated in 1946 and premiered in the presence of the composer in 1949, conducted by Franz André. A strange, slow-moving piece, it had never been performed between the time of its premiere and this recording. Koechlin described the basis of the story behind it thus:

The author of the story imagines he went to see, in his retreat, a certain Doctor Fabricius, a philosopher he had known a few years earlier. The doctor invites him to spend the night in his home, dinner in silence, an air of mystery about the doctor, the latter, finally, breaks the silence and explains to his guest why he lives “cut off from the world”: “Life”, he says, “is a piece of trickery, Nature is eternally indifferent, it uses us to maintain life and does nothing to reduce our misfortune” (cf. [Ernest] Renan’s [1823–1892] Dialogues philosophiques: “God does not operate through particular acts of will”). Immense injus­tice … very harsh with regard to the Powers that govern us …

So you can see this is a real fun piece. All kidding aside, however, it is a moody work that only has a few uplifting moments in its first half, i.e. the brief (43-second) fifth section, though it does get more energetic towards the end. It is, however, an extremely modern-sounding piece which has the feel of 12-tone music though it actually uses a sliding tonality.

All in all, an excellent set of Koechlin’s music, though I would gladly have forsaken all those transcriptions on disc 6 in favor of more of his own music. You can, however, find all the missing pieces I mentioned above, and more, for free streaming on YouTube. All the performances here are first-rate, as is the recorded sound.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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