Korstick Plays Koechlin

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KOECHLIN: Au loin. Nouvelles Sonatines Nos. 1-4. Premiere Album de Lilian, Op. 135, Nos. 2, 3 & 5.  Seconde Album de Lilian, Op. 149, Nos. 2, 4 & 8. Paysages et marines, Op. 63 / Michael Korstick, pno / Hänssler Classic 93220-1

Here is let another wonderful album by Michael Korstick that was slipped out on me without my knowledge of it, a 2008 album of music by the superb but still little-known French composer Charles Koechlin. Yes, there is also a Vol. 2 and 3, but these contain music often recorded by others, such as his one famous work, The Persian Hours and the Exquisses. This CD is unusual in that it includes several smaller pieces which the composer put into collections with the titles you see above.

It would be easy, and partially accurate, to simply say that Koechlin’s music is in the tradition of Debussy and Ravel. He, too became fascinated and involved in the soft, opaque colors and fluid harmonies instigated by the first and picked up on by the latter. But Koechlin clearly had his own method of construction and development which owed nearly as much to the German school as the French. He also lived much longer than either of the other two; born in 1867, midway between Debussy (1862) and Ravel (1875), he lived to the ripe old age of 83, continuing to write pieces well into the 1940s after both of the other two were long gone. Yet somehow he remained something of an outsider in the concert world while Debussy and Ravel gained the inside track, in part because his music was more complex, less melodically appealing, and thus not the sort of thing that attendees could hum on their way out of the concert hall. He thus suffered a fate similar to that of Nikolai Medtner, except that Koechlin saved his money and didn’t die destitute as poor Medtner did.

Those who have heard Korstick’s superb series of Debussy recordings will understand what I mean when I say that he really has a wonderful affinity for this music. Ironically, few other German pianists other than Gieseking really played Debussy well, thus Korstick is in rarified company in that respect, and although there may be some other well-known German pianists who can interpret French music this well, I haven’t run across any.

His approach to Koechlin is, appropriately, the polar opposite of his Beethoven except that in the music of both composers he retains his clean articulation and pearl-like tone at the keyboard. Every so often, as in the last movement of the Nouvelle Sonatine No. 1, we hear a piece that is less opaque and more extroverted in character, and it is here that Korstick’s admirers will immediately recognize his style.

Except for the opening Au loin, which runs over seven minutes, most of these are short vignettes that run between 49 second and 2 ½ minutes long, the exception to this rule being the three pieces from the Seconde Album de Lilian, which run between 3:46 and 4:33, but into these small forms Koechlin poured some of his most interesting and subtle music. It isn’t music that impressed you with its strength or dazzles you with piano pyrotechnics; on the contrary, most of this music is soft and subtle, and some of these pieces are technically easy to perform (as are certain slow movements of Beethoven). This is a CD for quiet reflection or, at least for me, a CD to sit and absorb as slowly and quietly as the music itself.

One cannot say enough for how well Korstick immerses himself in Koechlin’s aesthetic; under his skilled fingers, the music almost sounds liquid rather that solid, a hard thing to describe in words but you’ll understand it when you hear it. Recommended for those who enjoy the subtlety of the French impressionist school.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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