Exploring Pierre-Octave Ferroud’s Orchestral Works


FERROUD: Symphony in A. Types, for Piano (orchestral version).* Foules, Tone Poem for Orchestra. Serenade for Orchestra / *Elisabeth Laroche, pn; Lyon National Orchestra; Emmanuel Krivine, cond / Naïve V4909

This is a perfect example of how a great composer can fall through the cracks of time and somehow never come back up for air, even when his music is recorded digitally and issued on silver disc. This 1998 CD from Naïve attracted some attention at the time, most surprisingly from John Steane, normally an opera-only reviewer for Gramophone, but then submerged once again without a periscope or air supply. And it’s a shame, because the music is really, really great.

As noted in my review of his Violin Sonata in Judith Ingolfsson’s CD of French works, Ferroud’s music was not only modern in form and feel but rigorously constructed. He knew what he was about, and deeply impressed a bevy of fine composers including Poulenc, Milhaud, Dukas, Prokofiev and Florent Schmitt, who was his friend and of whom Ferroud wrote a biography. But he died at age 36, decapitated in a horrible auto accident, thus depriving the musical world of future great works and putting a kabosh on his posthumous reputation. Instead of being fêted, he was forgotten.

Which is a great pity, because as this superb disc proves, he really was a unique and interesting composer. The Symphony in A, which Prokofiev never tired of promoting or telling friends about, leads off the disc and it is a stunner. Beginning with a strong wind/brass chord and followed by scurrying string figures, it immediately establishes a bitonal atmosphere but then begins to lean towards tonality in the ensuing wind passage, sometimes dropping anchor in D major and sometimes moving on to other harmonic territory. There is a gentler contrasting theme at about 1:48, then a mysterious bass passage before bustling activity returns. All of it is, as Ferroud wanted his music to be, “optimistic, healthy and without flaw.” The second movement, an “Andante espressivo assai,” is less edgy harmonically though no less modern, presenting a lyrical theme that morphs with sometimes rapid changes. And of course there’s a sturdy, more invigorating theme in the middle of the movement to add contrast, later moving briefly into G major.

In the third movement, Ferroud starts with a blaring C major brass chord before giving us scurrying cello figures and moving the tonality around like chessmen on a board. Biting strings and slashing trombone figures interact for a bit, then the tempo eases up and we get an almost bucolic theme played by the oboe with flutes and cellos dancing around it. Soon enough the tempo ramps up again and Ferroud is off to the races, even bringing in the tympani to emphasize the energy. The oboe returns once again, followed by a flute, in a pastoral vein before returning to more bustle (including trilling trumpets). Small wonder that Prokofiev was so impressed by this symphony; it’s a gem. Swirling strings and punching brass end it.

This is followed on the CD by the orchestral version of his piano suite Types, recorded in that format by Marie-Catherine Girod in 1996. The three pieces are titled “Vieux beau,” “Bourgeoise de qualité” and “Businessman.” Written in 1924, this is quite obviously Ferroud in a rare playful mood, but his playfulness was akin to Stravinsky’s. Indeed, the influence of the older composer is evident throughout here, giving the music more of a neo-Russian slant than a French one. All of the elements one noted in the Symphony are present here, but more often with the scoring reduced in size and impact; only occasionally does the full orchestra blast out at us. Moreover, the themes themselves are whimsical if one can imagine such a thing in a work with modern harmonies. For whatever reason, “Bourgeoise de qualité” is performed here at a much slower tempo than the piano version; not sure why, but the performance still has vigor and drive (and a piano part, performed by Elisabeth Laroche). Punchy brass figures offset a somewhat drunken-sounding solo clarinet; a French horn solos briefly, followed by an oboe. The third piece, titled “Businessman,” scurries along like a manic typing pool in an old-styled office, with whoops from the horn and little fillips from the flute and piccolo amidst orchestral mayhem from the brass and strings.

Next up is Foules (Crowds), an 11-minute tone poem that begins in a surprisingly quiet vein. A fairly slow passage played by various winds with strings behind them leads us to passages of intermittent loudness and almost violent energy. Eventually the frenetic energy of the “crowds: overwhelms the quiet moments and takes over. Later on, and angular, repeated figure is tossed around from brasses to winds and then strings, leading to an explosive ending.

The finale of this disc is a tripartite Serenade, its movements titled “Berceuse,” “Pavane” and “Spiritual.” This shows Ferroud in a more relaxed mood, taking his time in presenting and evolving themes and using a more French style of composing. The score is reminiscent of Milhaud in its form and orchestration. “Pavane” doesn’t really sound like a piece in that style; Ferroud has completely restructured the music to present more of a slow march with acerbic and rather piquant harmonies. In the finale, “Spiritual,” he suggests an African-American piece of that type without ever really stating it in traditional form. It is surprisingly “punchy,” with occasional loud brass outbursts, followed by sardonic glissando trombones and a string theme that sounds just a little bit like a spiritual. It’s a very whimsical piece, dryly humorous and tongue-in-cheek.

We thus conclude our journey of some of Ferroud’s orchestral music. I guarantee you, it’s well worth the journey.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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