Haimovitz & Kadama Play French Music

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MON AMI, MON AMOUR / POULENC: Cello Sonata. FAURÉ: Papillon. Après un rêve. MILHAUD: Élegie. L. BOULANGER: Deux pieces pour violon et piano (arr. Haimovitz). N. BOULANGER: Trois pieces. RAVEL: Kaddish. DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata / Matt Haimovitz, cel; Mari Kodama, pno / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186816

Before getting into the music on this CD—which is all fine music by composers I admire in one way or another—I feel the need for a few words on the packaging and promotion of this album. Dig this blather, folks:

The vibrant, expressive musical palette of cellist Matt Haimovitz and the graceful insight of pianist Mari Kodama exquisitely meld in MON AMI, Mon amour. Cello and piano remain in constant, colourful conversation for rarities by sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger, in Debussy’s neo-Baroque Sonata, and in the effervescent world of Poulenc’s Cello Sonata. Ravel’s poignant Kaddish and Milhaud’s hopeful Élégie, composed at the end of World War II, round out a program which, even in times of darkness, never loses sight of its joie de vivre. Two Fauré gems are included, the virtuosic Papillon and the breath-taking Après un rêve, with its longing for a mysterious night and an elusive, ecstatic love.

Now, what has this nonsense have to do with the music? None of this music means anything what is claimed in the above paragraph, any more than the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony had anything to do with V for Victory or the William Tell Overture had anything to do with the Lone Ranger (or Tonto, for that matter). I would have thought that this kind of promotion went out the window in the mid-1970s, which was pretty much the tail end of the Hippie Era, but no. Pentatone would doubtless have marketed this CD through Reader’s Digest if that magazine was still a constant in American homes.

The music, however, is terrific, particularly the brisk, lively Poulenc Sonata which opens the CD. Both Haimovitz and his accompanist, Mari Kodama, are passionate and both play with a gorgeous tone. This is a splendid reading of this still-underrated work, and I was glad to hear it.

This is followed by Fauré’s lively Papillon or Butterflies, a difficult piece to play lightly on the cello. Haimovitz comes close to pulling it off, although I think he could have lightened his tone just a bit more. He is perfect in tone and weight in Milhaud’s little-known Élegie, however, a fine piece that is not quite as elegiac as its title might imply. It is written in a medium tempo and in the major, and its melodic line, though somewhat nostalgic, is not all that wistful.

Wistful, however, is the right word for Lili Boulanger’s Deux pieces pour violon et piano, played here in a transcription for cello by Haimovitz. Although I prefer the violin original, this is a very fine performance that draws attention to her Debussy-inspired period (although, for a composer who died so young, her “periods” were rather short). Nadia Boulenger, who gave up composing when her sister Lili died, contributes a nice if somewhat derivative set of three pieces, also in the Debussy-Ravel style. The lively third piece, “Vite et nerveusement rythme,” is by far the most original of the three.

Ravel’s famous Kaddish follows, a deeply felt performance, after which we get the crème de la crème, the Debussy Cello Sonata. I was absolutely captivated by Haimovitz’ performance; he doesn’t just play the notes, he inhabits the music to the point where it almost sounds as if he himself had composed it.

The closer is a cello classic, Fauré’s Après un rêve, and this, too, Haimovitz plays with great feeling. In closing, I should point out that this CD is a collaboration between Pentatone Classics and Oxingale Records, the latter named after a quote from Voltaire when he heard one of the greatest cellists of his day: “Sir, you have made me believe in miracles; you turn the ox into a nightingale.” This CD is clearly a gem.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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