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Hyperion Records

CDA66888 - Boëllmann & Godard: Cello Sonatas

Recording details: August 1995
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: April 1996
Total duration: 72 minutes 46 seconds

'Cellists should rejoice, and so should those who know Benjamin Godard only from the Jocelyn Berceuse and Léon Boëllmann from the Suite Gothique. First-rate digital sound' (Gramophone)

'An interesting and compellingly played disc of offbeat repertoire. Strongly recommended' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'This disc is chock-full of music I have never heard before. Without exception it is attractive, imaginative, and beautifully played … Lidström and Forsberg put us in their debt with this disc' (American Record Guide)

'This is wonderful. Unfamiliar yet instantly captivating repertoire leaves you wondering why you'd never heard this music before, especially when performed with the compelling advocacy and stunning bravura brought by Mats Lidström and Bengt Forsberg … This is a release of the highest distinction and significance, faultlessly played and atmospherically recorded … Very highly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

Boëllmann & Godard: Cello Sonatas
Moderato  [11'39]
Aubade  [7'13]
Scherzo  [3'08]
Valse lente  [3'45]
Menuet  [3'43]
Andante  [8'43]

The two cello sonatas on this recording are described by their performer, Mats Lidström, as belonging to the class of truly grand sonatas, along with the F major Sonata by Brahms. They come from late nineteenth-century Paris, and that tradition of French chamber-music composition which is marked out by an excellence of musical training and a seriousness of intent.

The melodic charm of Godard's Sonata is most strongly reminiscent of comparable compositions by Schumann; the Sonata by the tragically short-lived Boëllmann is marked out rather by virtuosic demands and an extraordinary range of almost Wagnerian harmonic sideslips.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
France has always been, and remains, a hierarchical society; and Paris, representing the head of that hierarchy, has always operated a pecking-order, whether in politics and public life (through the Grandes Écoles), in literature (through the numerous prix), or in music (through the Conservatoire and through examinations such as the Prix de Rome). For any nineteenth-century French composer, not to have passed through the Conservatoire left you open to the suspicion that you did not really know your craft, as well as depriving you of a potentially helpful old-student network. At the same time, a career at the Conservatoire could be no guarantee of later success in the outside world; or if success there were, that it would survive posthumously.

Benjamin Godard
This last fate has befallen Benjamin Godard. Born in 1849, he studied at the Conservatoire, taking violin lessons from the famous virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps and composition lessons from Henri Reber, the author of a harmony treatise which remained for years a standard textbook. This solid start bore fruit finally in the dramatic symphony Tasso, which won him the Paris City Composition Prize in 1878. In 1887 he was appointed as a composition professor at the Conservatoire and retained the post until his death seven years later at the age of only forty-five.

At that time, he was regarded as a highly successful composer. Symphonies and concertos of his were regularly performed in Paris concerts and, for the less flashy denizens of the salons, there were any number of charming piano pieces, like the well-known Chemin faisant (‘Travelling along’). But it has to be said that all this promise was never really fulfilled – Godard ‘travelled along’, but never really arrived. Why was this?

Two reasons suggest themselves. The first is that, although he completed eight operas, none of them really caught fire. Jocelyn, for example, the provider of the famous ‘Berceuse’, was produced in Brussels in 1884 and at a private Paris theatre in 1888, but never made it either to the Opéra-Comique or to the Opéra; and when his opera Dante did make it to the Opéra-Comique, it was a resounding flop. For the opera-mad Parisians, it was better (like Chopin) never to have tried the doors of a public opera house, than to have reached its stage and failed.

The second reason may have been that the serious, fashion-conscious Parisian music-lover did not warm to Godard’s traditional musical language. Godard’s friend Chabrier certainly expressed the view in 1888 that Jocelyn was ‘the music of 1850’, and was also responsible for one of the more widely repeated bons mots of the time: when Godard said to him, “What a pity, my dear Emmanuel, that you started composing so late!”, Chabrier replied. “What a pity, my dear Benjamin, that you started so early!”

None of this, though, relates to the quality of his chamber music, a genre to which, like many French composers of the 1870s and 1880s, he brought a seriousness informed by his excellent technical training. In his D minor Cello Sonata, the predominant influence is that of Schumann. This may have been a drawback in Chabrier’s eyes, but to the modern listener, unconcerned with the claims of novelty, it leads to a blend of strong bass lines and mildly chromatic harmony which sits well with Godard’s pleasing melodic gift. In the first movement, his operatic leanings come out in a number of sudden changes of texture and dynamics, especially in some low, menacing chromatic swirls. Strong bass lines are again evident in the central slow movement, as is a partiality for the major third in the melodic line. The last movement is structurally the most complex, with three main themes, the third of them a passionate tune high on the cello which any operatic tenor would give his eye-teeth for. The almost patriotic tone of the ending again recalls Schumann.

In the Aubade and Scherzo, a slow-fast-slow form is followed by a fast-slow-fast, giving six sections in alternating tempi. We may be reminded of the cavatina/cabaletta pairing of early nineteenth-century Italian arias.

Léon Boëllmann
Léon Boëllmann was one of those who took the risk of not studying at the Paris Conservatoire, but went instead to the École Niedermeyer, founded by Louis Niedermeyer in the middle of the nineteenth-century for the training of organists and choirmasters. Like Fauré and Messager, he studied under one of the school’s most successful alumni, Eugène Gigout but, unlike them, went on to become a virtuoso organist. In 1896, the year before his death at the age of only thirty-five, he was appointed organist of the church of St-Vincent-de-Paul.

As a composer, he is best known for his Suite gothique for organ, the last movement of which is a fiery Toccata in the pattern which was to continue in the works of Dupré and Messiaen, and probably beyond. It is also worth noting that the tenth of his Twelve Pieces of 1890 is a ‘Canzona in the Gregorian mode’ – not quite the standard form we might suppose, since it was just about that year that Delibes threw a pupil out of his class for putting a flattened seventh into a cadence …

Virtuosity and modality are two elements in his A minor Cello Sonata. But our first surprise may be the range of minor keys explored by the first movement’s introduction, and the variety of almost (but not quite) Wagnerian harmonic sideslips. The flattened seventh is a feature of the main theme, as the long note in the middle of the bar is of the second theme – a favourite device of late nineteenth-century French composers. The development cleverly uses the minor-key explorations of the introduction to new effect.

The theme of the slow movement gives the impression of being about to break into recitative, as the cello’s phrases habitually begin with a rest on the first downbeat. This slight uneasiness is calmed in the beautiful central section, which inhabits a Duparc-like dream-world, before strenuous times return. The occasional harmonic corner suggests that Boëllmann had looked at the works of that great master of French organ writing, César Franck. The opening theme of the last movement not only provides further evidence of modal thinking, in an A minor with F sharps and G naturals, but also cunningly shows solidarity with the opening themes of the two previous movements: with the upbeat rhythm of the second movement, and with the triplet motion of the first. A chorale-like passage near the end of the movement subscribes to a familiar pattern in French music (see, for example, the finale of Saint-Saëns’s Third Violin Concerto), but this is merely a springboard for further rhythmic agitation, and the work ends, not in a triumphant A major, but in an A minor which perhaps reflects those searching minor keys in the introduction.

The Valse lente and the Menuet, while scarcely calling for analysis, are finely written and rarely predictable. Altogether Boëllmann’s early death must be counted a loss to French music as serious as that of his fellow organist and composer Jehan Alain just over forty years later.

Roger Nichols © 1996

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