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Hyperion Records

CDA66979 - Koechlin & Pierné: Cello Sonatas
CDA66979

Recording details: July 1997
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: May 1998
Total duration: 68 minutes 26 seconds

DIAPASON D'OR

'This is a fine disc all round' (American Record Guide)

'Little-known pieces of rare beauty' (Classic CD)

'Intriguing, often challenging and downright beautiful … idiomatic performances that amount to inspired advocacy. Lovingly recommended—to those who listen' (Fanfare, USA)

'Un merveilleux concert' (Diapason, France)

Koechlin & Pierné: Cello Sonatas
Lent  [11'27]
Animé  [6'22]
Très modéré  [4'33]

Mats Lidström writes:
'Of all the divine French cello sonatas, only the Debussy from 1915 is heard live today. But getting to know Pierné's puts French cello music in a new perspective. His Sonata is absolutely loaded with beautiful material and, as far as cello writing goes, Pierné knew no limits. The fast middle section starts out strict, however hinting desire. Build-up upon build-up become frustrating, and yet, sensual. The more he wants the thicker the chords, the bigger the shifts. It's all terribly exciting, but the expression is serious. The slow section from the beginning returns with intensified beauty, even managing to climax before ending peacefully in that wonderful key he picked, F sharp minor.

'After playing the last note of our first performance of Koechlin's Sonata, I turned to Bengt and saw him look as fulfilled as I felt. I'll never forget it, because the feeling was very special. A kind of spiritual fulfilment, like when having encountered something totally honest.

'The Chansons Bretonnes are inspired by folklore from the middle ages: King Arthur, Crusades, Druids …'


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
‘Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937): Minor French Composer.’ That’s how he’s described in Alma Mahler’s Memories and Letters (Hans Pfitzner is listed just above, and we note that he, however, is an ‘eminent’ composer). But what can you expect if you, in the company of Debussy and Dukas, suddenly get up and walk out in the middle of the slow movement at the Paris premiere of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, Gustav conducting. The music sounded ‘too Schubertian, too Viennese, too Slav’! They had to get out!

Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné was born in Lorraine on 16 August 1863 to a piano-teaching mother and a singing-teaching father. At age 17 the family moved to Paris and Gabriel began taking organ lessons with C. Franck and composition with J. Massenet. In 1882 he won the Prix de Rome with the cantata Édith, one of several awards from the student years.

Franck died in 1890, and his successor for the next eight years as organist at Ste-Clotilde was Pierné. Pierné’s passion for conducting, however, brought him to the Colonne Orchestra in 1903 as 2nd conductor to Ed. Colonne himself. In 1910, he became 1st conductor, remaining there until his retirement in 1934. The orchestra with its 48 concerts annually, developed into something of a platform for fellow-composers to have new works performed, thanks to Pierné’s devotion and generosity. In 1925 he was made a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, followed by Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.

Sometimes described as one of the most ‘complete’ of French composers, Pierné was equally comfortable writing church music, organ music and oratorios such as La Croisade des Enfants (successfully performed all over the world, including Russia, South Africa and the U.S.), Les Enfants à Bethléem, L’An Mil or La Samaritaine, as he was writing the pantomime Le Collier de Saphir (his first work for the theatre (1891) from which he transcribed a Sérénade for cello and piano), Impressions de Music-Hall, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (‘You don’t play with love’), or Le Docteur Blanc.

Besides conducting ballet – associated with Ballets Russes, he gave the premiere of Firebird in June 1910 – he composed his own: Les Joyeuses commères de Paris (‘The Merry Wives of Paris’), Bouton-d’or, Giration or Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied. To this, add operas and comedies, like La Coupe enchantée, La Fille de Tabarin, Sophie Arnould, Vendée, Salomé, and many more!

Of his works for a solo instrument and orchestra, most are from the turn of the century. A piano concerto from 1887 (music by a 24 year-old), a Konzertstück for harp from 1903, and from 1907, the better known Canzonetta for clarinet. No cello concerto, unfortunately – but his composing cousin Paul Pierné (1874-1952) wrote an impressive symphonic poem in two parts for cello and orchestra, called Masque de Comédie. And a Cello Sonata in D major from 1902.

The chamber music appears in various shapes, too. A concert prelude for bassoon on a theme by Purcell, a saxophone quartet, a violin sonata from 1909, and a piano quintet from the same year as the Cello Sonata in F sharp minor, 1919.

Studying his output, like this not even closely, one is amazed to notice a magnitude of ideas taking off in every direction. Possessing an intense imagination, it seems that he’s able to put every stream of emotion going through his body into music.

It’s a mistake to place Pierné’s composition in the shade of his successful conducting career. It’s been done before. It happened to Mahler, before it had to be another art form that helped break the ice: Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice. Saint-Saëns and Korngold also suffer from having their depth questioned, simply because they were multi-talented. Just as Leonard Bernstein and André Previn may serve as examples from our own time.

Of all the divine French cello sonatas, only the Debussy from 1915 is heard live today. But getting to know Pierné’s ditto, puts French cello music in a new perspective. Just like the Beethoven A major Sonata, Op 69, surrounded by the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (Op 68) and ‘Ghost’ Trio (Op 70) the Pierné Cello Sonata is in good company, too! On one side, there’s the massive C?minor Piano Trio, which makes any such group just glow on stage. And on the other, yet another trio in a vital, neo-classic, pure C major style for flute, cello and piano: Sonata da Camera.

The Cello Sonata is absolutely loaded with beautiful material, and as far as cello writing goes, Pierné knew no limits. The fast middle section starts out strict, however hinting desire. Build-up upon build-up become frustrating, and yet, sensual. The more he wants the thicker the chords, the bigger the shifts. It’s all terribly exciting, but the expression is serious. The slow section from the beginning returns with intensified beauty, even managing to climax before ending peacefully in that wonderful key he picked, F sharp minor.

After playing the last note of our first performance of Koechlin’s Cello Sonata, I turned to Bengt and saw him look as fulfilled as I felt. I’ll never forget it, because the feeling was very special. A kind of spiritual fulfilment, like when having encountered something totally honest.

Koechlin’s motto was ‘Spiritus flat ubi vult’ (certainly from St. John’s 3:8, Jesus versus Nikodemus, ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit’). Time and again Koechlin returned to the subject of freedom (‘I dreamed of becoming a sailor …’, he explained in an application to the Naval College in 1885!) and freedom of the spirit. Late in his life this philosophy also had a political side, when ‘music for the people’ played an important role to him. He even worked for the Association France-USSR, but, as Grove points out, was never an official party member.

The Cello Sonata, Op 66, was written in 1917, during horrible war. It stems from a busy chamber music period, one of 9 duo sonatas that are described by the composer as a ‘constant light’ or ‘gradual illumination’. The first movement is indeed light, pastoral and undisturbed. It’s followed by another tranquil, nocturnal movement, but with a very complex piano part, involving several voices spread out over three staves, independent of the cello line as well as of tonality. He wrote to De Falla in 1923 that the finale would ‘doubtless make him think of various works by young French composers like Milhaud’. Bengt and I thought of Charles Ives, and we thought the beginning resembled Gregorian chant. It uses the softest nuance I’ve ever come across in a cello sonata: pppp ! Barlines appear, as in the previous movements, when necessary for the phrase, and a wish for absolute evenness in sound and lack of expression is repeated. The latter becomes a question of discipline for the performers, since the places where this is asked for are so beautiful!

Charles Louis Eugène Koechlin was born in Paris on 27 Nov 1867, three years before the Prussian catastrophe, into a world that knew Wagner, Franck, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and died on New Year’s Eve 1950 after two World Wars, full-scale war in Vietnam, Debussy and Ravel, R. Strauss, Schoenberg and Stockhausen. He would always fight for the young that he felt had something to say with their music, at the same time considering Stravinsky too aggressive, and somebody like Varèse surviving through bluff.

Like his longtime friend Pierné, he studied composition with Massenet (‘By no means a reactionary, and never academic’), but ended up, in 1896 together with Ravel, Enescu, Florent Schmitt and Roger-Ducasse in the class of Fauré, whom they learned to adore. Asked by Fauré to orchestrate his Pelléas et Mélisande, Op 80 (including the famous ‘Sicilienne’ that once was a cello and piano piece only), Koechlin had further inquiries from Saint-Saëns and Debussy. Fauré was not able, however, as Director of the Paris Conservatory, to secure Koechlin a vacant professorship in harmony at the Conservatory. By then (1916) Koechlin had, through his unconventional ways, made many enemies among high officials, who resisted him. Much later he resisted, too, by declining the Légion d’Honneur.

With his finances in poor shape, much because of the war, he started to teach more, and write articles on music for various magazines. He also wrote programme notes for the Colonne concert series, where several of his works were performed thanks to Pierné.

In 1918, he was invited to hold lectures all over the U.S., the first of four visits. He even met President W. Wilson, with whom he discussed Versailles and the concept of the League of Nations!

In 1933, Koechlin became a movie buff. He’d seen M. Dietrich and E. Jannings in Der blaue Engel, and began writing film music in private, and for his stars, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Clara Bow (the ‘It Girl’, as my father remembers she was called), Douglas Fairbanks Sr. They all got their share – some of them with a movement each of the Seven Stars’ Symphony, Op 132 from 1933 – but none as big as Lilian Harvey, who kept Charles Koechlin occupied for two years: she was to receive 113 pieces altogether!

He started going to the movies in 1912, even though he found the stories conventional and the subtitles banal. Charlie Chaplin he liked and also met, in America in 1929 after a concert at Hollywood Bowl where his orchestral suite Études Antiques, Op 46, was performed. Chaplin, subscribing to the concert series, might very well have heard it!

Koechlin’s list of works is huge. 226 with opus numbers, and some without. There’s music for everybody; numerous songs, string quartets, music for piano, organ and Ondes Martenot, symphonies and symphonic poems, 12 pieces for bassoon and orchestra called Silhouettes de Comédie (!), and a ballet for Ballets Russes that eventually was refused by Diaghilev (instead he orchestrated some jazzy stuff by his pupil Cole Porter which made up the Manhattan-based story Within the quota for Diaghilev’s main rival in Paris, Rolf de Mare’s Ballet Suédois). The list goes on, and makes splendid reading after a hard day’s work. The Jungle Book, for instance, an orchestral suite, written over a span of 30 years, and first performed in 1946!

Koechlin’s interest in modality resulted in the Chansons Bretonnes, sur des thèmes de l’Ancien Folklore, Op 115 from 1931, some of them orchestrated in 1934. He’d found them in a compilation called Barzas Bréis (‘Poetic Treasure from Bretagne’), which tells of Crusades, King Arthur, the druids, and of local festive occasions and tragedies. They travel from the beautiful to the abstract, showing new ways of writing for the cello, Les Laboureurs and Les Trois Moines Rouges serving as good examples. Of these 20 songs from Brittany, only 12 are published. According to Koechlin scholar Robert Orledge, several of the un-published are the most attractive of all! Time to contact the publisher …

In common with his wife Suzanne, Koechlin loved tennis, swimming, gardening and mountaineering. He was very much an outdoor person. And a collection of photographs published in 1933 as Ports, suggests that had he wanted to he could just as well have chosen photography for his profession!

Composer Henri Sauguet saw him like this in the 1940s:

His noble and handsome face, surrounded by that flowing beard which caught everyone’s eye, crowned by hair which enveloped him like celestial clouds – these were characteristics that are generally attributed to sages. These exterior signs reflected the interior man well. He was a wise man; in reality, a profoundly human sage – passionate (but the master of his passions), radiant, frank, fiercely in love with freedom and independence, but at the same time enamoured of discipline and strictness. He was also curious about all forms of expression, even those furthest away from his own personal tastes. He respected the thoughts and conceptions of his contemporaries, who, even if they were at odds with him, always found him interested, ready to be convinced, kindly, and anxious to be fair.

Mats Lidström © 1998

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