The Music of Rhené-Emmanuel Baton

BRI95554 - cover

RHENÉ-BATON: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Suite Ancienne. Cello Sonata. Piano Trio / Leonardo Micucci, vln; Roberto Mansueto, cel; Francesco Basanisi, pno (Wolferl Trio) / Brilliant Classics BRI95554

With all the boring, same-sounding Baroque, Classical and early Romantic composers whose work gets revived ad nauseum nowadays, I sometimes wonder how a fairly interesting composer like Rhené-Emmanuel Baton, who went by the professional name of simply Rhené-Baton, ever gets shoved aside in the first place. A conductor as well as a composer, he was one of the conductors with Serge Diaghelev’s Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo and made the first recording (acoustically, in 1924) of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which was reissued for the first time ever in Warner Classics’ massive Complete Berlioz set. And, despite the sonic limitations, it’s a pretty good performance.

This music, redolent of the belle époque, the songs of Reynaldo Hahn and the chamber music of Ravel and Debussy, is also pretty good, although the first movement of his first violin sonata also struck me as combining some of the rhythms and modal motifs of American Indian music as was done a bit earlier by Edward MacDowell. Although this echt-Indian style has come in for a heap of criticism in recent decades, it was never intended to be insulting or demeaning to Native Americans, and Dvořák indulged in it as well in his Indian Lament. Clearly, Rhené-Baton was a fine, solid composer, and his music has charm, energy, good structure and interesting themes.

Of course, what I hear as American Indian themes could possibly be Breton, the area of France that Rhené-Baton came from. Whatever the case, there is a similar (but not as strong) a feel in his second Violin Sonata as well. The liner notes point out that, as a pianist as well as a conductor, Rhené-Baton wrote the much more technically demanding piano parts of these sonatas for himself, but the point is that the music is quite good: not formulaic, or sappy, or “easy listening.” Rhené-Baton keeps his themes and their variants moving forward, constantly shifting and morphing, with occasional unusual chord changes. This sonata is interesting in that it is in one long movement, lasting over 11 minutes, yet does not have contrasting sections like other such sonatas.

The Suite Ancienne, one of his later works (1933), is more like a Baroque suite in its alternation of dance movements: Prélude, Aria, Gavotte and Gigue. It’s rhythmically energetic and charming without sounding cloying, though clearly not the best music on this set…more like “classics lite.” The Cello Sonata is richer and more pensive in its first movement, the cellist playing a repeated note sequence in a slow rocking motion as the pianist plays around it before entering with its broad theme. Then, at the two-minute mark, the pianist digs in and the tempo increases while the music still retains its somewhat melancholy feeling. Yet the music becomes more feverish still, the cellist playing fast bowed notes in rapid succession, alternating with broader themes as the piano part becomes more complex as well. The second movement, more settled in both rhythm and tonality, is similarly pensive while the third movement returns us to that sort of American Indian/Breton style of music.

The real gem in this set, however, is the Piano Trio of 1923. Opening with a pensive theme played on the edge of the strings by the violin and cello, we then move into a violin-cello dialogue as the piano softly enters underneath them. Then, at the 2:20 mark, we suddenly jump into an allegro using the same theme as a basis for development. Here, Rhené-Baton used extended chords, a whole-tone scale and other interesting devices to add interest to the ongoing musical conversation, and all of it is knit together splendidly. The second movement has splendid drive and retains several features of the first. Yet what differentiates this piece from all the others is the high quality and extended length of the variations, which keep the listener engaged from start to finish.

The third movement, “Andante – Allegro vivace e agitato,” is even more interesting than the first two, beginning with a mysterious and somewhat minimal theme played on the piano, into which the violin and cello enter to work around it. Rhené-Baton uses a number of devices in the ensuing variants, yet always manages to knit the principal theme into them. This is simply masterful writing.

Although probably not a major composer, Rhené-Baton clearly does not deserve the oblivion into which he has fallen after his death. The Cello Sonata and Piano Trio are clearly fine works worthy of perpetuation and, yes, even programming by today’s chamber musicians.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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