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Hyperion Records

CDA67427 - Bréville & Canteloube: Violin Sonatas

Recording details: November 2003
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: October 2004
Total duration: 69 minutes 32 seconds

'Graffin is ideally attuned to this idiom, sensitively partnered by the busy fingers of Devoyon. This, in other words, is Hyperion at its best—two beautiful and unaccountably neglected works revived in outstanding performances, sympathetically recorded and stylishly presented' (Gramophone)

'Both these extensive and serious works are fine examples of what is best about French Romanticism stretching into the modern era. Played with passion, commitment to idiom and technical fluency, as well as being excellently recorded, these little-known pieces should win wide appeal' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is music that could easily pall in less sensitive and committed hands, but Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon almost have one believing it's a neglected masterwork' (International Record Review)

'Graffin and Devoyon play both of these backward-looking rarities with a rewarding combination of insight and selfless devotion' (The Irish Times)

'With both works sublimely performed by Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon, in a particularly intimate presentation, there is little to criticise here, although the recording balance just favours the violin, which in turn enhances the more delicate music of Cantaloube over the richer sound of Bréville. In fact, this beautiful release can simply be regarded as a most welcome addition to the French music catalogue' (Hi-Fi Plus)

'Fans of French music from this period will need no further recommendation from me. A beautiful disc' (

Bréville & Canteloube: Violin Sonatas
Mouvement modéré  [12'04]
En plein vent  [8'17]
Le soir  [7'51]
Jour de fête  [6'54]

The enterprising Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon continue their Odyssey through the byways of the French repertoire with two enchanting discoveries for violin and piano.

Joseph Canteloube is remembered these days almost exclusively for a bouquet of songs drawn from his five cycles of Chants d’Auvergne; Pierre de Bréville, much lauded during his lifetime, does not even have Canteloube’s one-work-composer status to keep his name before the public. Both deserve better.

Bréville’s Violin Sonata No 1 in C sharp minor, the first of five, was composed in 1918/9. Premiered by George Enescu, this is a good-humoured work, combining the lyricism of Fauré and Chausson with a personal freshness of style to make an appealing, and highly original, whole.

Canteloube wrote his suite Dans la montagne early in his career – and its very spontaneity makes for a striking contrast with Bréville’s predilection for complexity of form. Written under the attentive guidance of Vincent d’Indy, the suite perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of a summer evening in the foothills of the composer’s beloved Auvergne.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Marie Joseph Canteloube (1879–1957) is remembered these days almost exclusively for a bouquet of songs drawn from his five cycles of Chants d’Auvergne, the first published in 1924, the fifth premiered thirty years later. Pierre Eugène Onfroy de Bréville (1861–1949), much lauded during his lifetime, does not even have Canteloube’s one-work-composer status to keep his name before the public. Both deserve better.

Pierre de Bréville was born in the pretty Renaissance town of Bar-le-Duc, in the Ornain valley of Lorraine, on 21 February 1861. Like so many composers whose parents looked askance on the idea of a career in music, he studied safer subjects to begin with, at the École Bossuet, Collège Stanislas and the Faculté de Droit, preparing for a life in the diplomatic service. But the pull of music was too strong, and so he shifted his allegiances to the Conservatoire de Paris and the harmony class of Théodore Dubois, where he remained for two years (1880–82). Then he made the move that was to stamp his own music indelibly, when he began to study counterpoint, fugue and composition with César Franck: though he spent only two years at Franck’s feet, Bréville’s music paid him tribute all the rest of his life.

Bréville repaid his debts more directly, too. One of Franck’s intermittent attempts to pen an opera came in the form of Ghisèle, which he began in 1888, orchestrating the first act himself; the ‘bande à Franck’ then furnished a team which took over: Act 2 was scored by Bréville, d’Indy and Chausson, Act 3 by Samuel-Alexandre Rousseau and Act 4 by Arthur Coquard, one of the first of the Franckistes – and these last two likewise long forgotten.

Bréville also allied himself with the Franck school in another manner. In 1894, four years after Franck’s death, d’Indy, Charles Bordes and a number of others founded the Schola Cantorum, to continue Franck’s teachings; four years after that, in 1898, Bréville joined the staff, leading a counterpoint class, again for four years. His other principal teaching post came in 1917, when he took charge of the chamber-music classes at the Conservatoire, remaining in the post for two years. A further official duty was assumed when he became the secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique and then the chairman of its committee. Bréville was a prominent (and often witty) critic as well, writing a generous quantity of articles – not least for the Mercure de France – which often examined the music of his contemporaries, notably Franck, Chausson and Duparc.

If these activities suggest that he was a conservative pillar of the musical establishment, his fondness for foreign climes points to an unprejudiced mind. He travelled to Bayreuth in 1882 for the first performance of Parsifal (meeting Bruckner and Liszt at Wahnfried) and again in 1888, when Debussy and Fauré were among the French visitors to the Festival. He went on a tour of Scandinavia in 1889, dropping in on Grieg at Troldhaugen – where the two of them doubtless talked about Grieg’s forthcoming visit to Paris that December, when he was to conduct a concert of his own music. Another voyage around 1894 took Bréville to Constantinople, opening his ears to oriental music.

Although in these early days of the twenty-first century Bréville has almost no profile as a composer, a hundred years ago he was already well established as an important voice in French music, a position he maintained over the years up to his death (on 24 September 1949), with a reputation anchored chiefly on his vocal music. The American musicologist and Bréville authority Mimi S Daitz documents 105 songs known to have been composed between 1879 and 1945 (twenty-three of them unpublished) and writes in her entry on Bréville in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

The early songs were clearly influenced by Wagner and the later ones by Fauré and Debussy. They are all skilfully written, with rhythmic inventiveness, meticulous prosody and sensitivity to the poetry. Occasionally the harmonic control weakens; at other times the harmonic-contrapuntal organization is masterly.

In Bréville’s own estimation, one of his most important works was Eros vainqueur, the only opera he was to complete (he labelled it a ‘conte lyrique’), commissioned by the Opéra-Comique in 1900 but performed there only thirty-four years later; the premiere was given at the Théâtre de La Monnaie in Brussels in 1910. If a modern revival of Eros vainqueur is too much to hope for in these novelty-conscious times, some belated attention to Bréville’s songs might explain why his contemporaries held him in such high esteem.

In spite of his preoccupation with vocal music, Bréville wrote a number of instrumental works, including sonatas for cello (1930) and viola (1944). His C sharp minor Violin Sonata, composed in 1918–19, was the first of five, the last of which was composed in 1947, when he was eighty-six – two years after his last song, and two years before his death. The score of the First Sonata is inscribed ‘à la mémoire du lieutenant Gervais Cazes’; it was premiered by no less a figure than George Enescu, accompanied by another outstanding musician, Blanche Selva, at the Société Nationale de Musique on 20 March 1920.

The work begins almost as a cabaret song: one can imagine the opening violin line, over stamping chords, sung in some smoky Spanish night-club – although after five bars the rolling, Fauréan piano-writing removes any doubt as to the composer’s nationality. The two ideas are combined as the extensive development section sets out – though it’s soon put on hold while Bréville unwraps a gorgeous lyrical melody in calm but rapt dialogue between piano and violin. The dramatic opening phrases then return for further development, where they alternate with the material from the lyrical episode – the piano harmonies just before the onset of the coda recalling Bréville’s early fascination with Wagner.

The second movement is an A–B–A structure, but Bréville, always a sucker for development, has it both ways: the B section, introduced by a brief upwards run in the violin, simply takes over the existing material, converting its 2/4 time-signature into 3/4.

The dark third movement, a Lamento marked extrêmement lent, is based on Bréville’s song Héros, je vous aime, a 1915 orchestral setting of a text by Henri de Régnier in praise of the French soldiers who had died in action in the First World War – then, of course, providing the major part of every Frenchman’s fears. Mimi Daitz doesn’t pull any punches in her discussion of Héros, je vous aime: it is, she says, ‘grandiose, bombastic, trite’. She was unable to locate the score of the orchestral version of the song and wonders if the overblown and occasionally awkward piano-writing can be ascribed to its condensation of orchestral textures – problems which are then exported into the Sonata, where for twenty-three bars the tolling piano part reproduces that of the song, with some rhythmic alterations and harmonic expansion. The violin-writing likewise suggests a vocal origin, with the influence of Fauré again plain to hear. As an instrumental duo, the music in large measure escapes the strictures levelled against the song; the emotion of this lament never quite finds a focus, although it does achieve a kind of transcendence in the lyricism of its closing pages.

The terse piano-writing of the opening of the finale, marked Modérément animé et martial, immediately recalls that of Alkan, whose reputation would already have begun to sink into obscurity when Bréville began his career – but the violin teasingly moderates the hint of anger and the movement swings on its way, alternating dance-like episodes with more lyrical material. Bréville being Bréville, he can’t resist the developmental urge, producing a tension with the essential freshness of his themes – and perhaps extending the structure beyond their carrying capacity. On the final page of the score, the piano at last pauses to deliver a chord held over four bars – and the violin substitutes the memory of Fauré for an evocation of Chausson and, behind him, their old teacher, César Franck. An unintentional homage, almost certainly, and all the more telling for it.

Bréville’s Sonata comes from a composer writing in his full maturity; Joseph Canteloube’s Suite Dans la montagne, by contrast, is one of its creator’s first ventures in composition – and its spontaneity makes a striking contrast with Bréville’s studied complexity.

Mountains were something Joseph Canteloube held dear. Born in the town of Annonay, in the Ardèche, on 21 October 1879, he would go out walking with his father during the school holidays in the rugged countryside around their ancestral home, the château of Malaret, near Bagnac, in the Lot. At the age of seventeen, on the death of his father, he took up residence there himself and, apart from six months trying – unsuccessfully – to make a go of working for a bank in Bordeaux, he stayed there until 1906, when he and his young family moved to Paris. In this relative isolation, musical contacts were few. But Canteloube was especially lucky in two of them. His first piano teacher, Amélie Doetzer, had been a close friend of Chopin. And in 1902 he made the acquaintance of Vincent d’Indy, who over the next four years taught him by correspondence, making detailed comment on the works Canteloube sent him. After an early Marche funèbre and other piano pieces, Canteloube concentrated on songs – for voice and piano, voice and organ, voice and string quartet. Dans la montagne, written in 1904–5, was the first work of any scale to emerge from this long-distance tutelage.

On 20 August 1904 d’Indy wrote to Canteloube that Dans la montagne was ‘the work of yours which has interested me most, being, I think (in spite of its popular stamp), the most genuinely original’. The prelude was, d’Indy thought:

good, well handled, well constructed, perhaps too long in the middle in F#, where one hears too often what one has already heard in the form of restatement, which isn’t development at all. But it would take very little to make a really good piece of it.

For the second movement d’Indy had some blustery criticism. It was:

less well constructed, although the its elements are altogether excellent. Very good exposition, but what kind of devilish modulation are you going to employ to get out of the said exposition? It’s awkward, inharmonic and all that to reach a C major which is the last key to choose in a piece in G minor.

After a few more comments, mixing plain-talking technical observation with words of honest encouragement, d’Indy concluded: ‘I believe you can make something very good of this violin suite on condition that it be more composed’.

Canteloube took d’Indy’s criticism to heart and set about reworking the score, sending it to d’Indy some time the following year. His teacher’s response, this time even longer-distance than usual, came from Boston, in a letter dated 20 November 1905:

The 1st and 2nd Nos. are now very good. It is astonishing how the 2nd piece has gained from the changes you have made. Such that it is absolutely harmonious and as the musical elements are very good, it really makes an excellent piece.

D’Indy expressed some structural reservations about the third movement – and then shrugged them off: ‘don’t change anything more in this piece. It is what it is, and can stay like that’. But he then went into an extended analysis of the fourth movement, taking issue with the length of the exposition (and aiming a passing swipe at his most prominent contemporary: ‘don’t trust Debussysme, that will pass very quickly’) and with imbalances in the tonal relationships and the disposition of the thematic material, explaining to Canteloube exactly what was required to re-adjust the tonal architecture.

The prentice composer again appears to have taken the advice, since the next version of Dans la montagne, published by Rouart Lerolle in 1906, avoids the pitfalls d’Indy was worried about. (A second, revised, edition was published in 1933; this recording was made using the 1906 version.)

On the printed page, the mounting waves of piano figures – six notes: four rising, two falling – which support the violin line in the prelude look as if they might be intended to illustrate the title, ‘En plein vent’ – but Canteloube has marked the music Lent. Très calme: this is a gentle hilltop breeze, not a mountain squall. An extended central section, Assez animé, introduces a hint of folk-dancing, perhaps even of country fiddling, before it blows itself out over descending tremolos in the piano and, after a few bars, Plus lent, of near-complete calm, the opening material, still marked Très calme, returns – but it doesn’t quite close the movement; that’s left to a reprise of the Plus lent section. All the while the violin line has consisted of little else than the six-note, four-up, two-down, melodic shape.

One sees why d’Indy was so impressed with the second movement, ‘Le soir’, in its 1905 revision: it creates its summer-evening atmosphere with an absolute minimum of effort, with assured understatement and gentle half-colours – and for a composer of such relative inexperience, it is an ambitious eight minutes in length. The writing for violin is entirely idiomatic; and the piano part is full of such subtle shadings and colorations that one wishes that Canteloube the future master-orchestrator had revisited the piece to score it for orchestra. As if to underline its continuity, ‘Le soir’, too, opens with a rising-and-falling figure, which is similarly threaded through the movement, sometimes in lines so long that it isn’t obvious to the ear. The gentle chromaticism of the violin part, over rippling piano figuration, makes the harmony subtly unpredictable, giving the music an improvisatory quality; the closing passage, Lent, where the piano lays down gentle chords soon marked lointain (‘distant’) and the violin pulls on a mute, also introduces a physical sense of space, of the music drifting out over the hills.

The third movement, ‘Jour de fête’, sparkles with the soft-edged humour that was to animate the Chants d’Auvergne – with the rhythm underlining how close Malaret is to Spain, an allusion reinforced when the pizzicato entry of the violin suggests the guitar. The violin part explicitly recreates the sounds of a village festival: one section of held chords is marked comme de l’accordéon – just after the violin has sketched the outline of the six-note figure from the first movement; and after a succession of runs, followed by a series of extended trills, the shape returns: this degree of thematic integration is surprising in a piece that has no pretensions to sonata form. For a moment the piano sounds as if it is about to set off downstream on Smetana’s Vltava, but instead both instruments engage in a series of folk-dances (where the orchestrating attention of the older Canteloube could also have paid dividends), before the opening Spanish rhythms return to round the movement off.

The piano textures that launch the final movement, ‘Dans le bois au printemps’, reveal why d’Indy cautioned his student against ‘Debussysme’ – but then the violin opens out an Auvergnat melody that, in more extended form, was later to become famous through its inclusion in the Chants d’Auvergne (and subsequent television advertisements). A subsidiary, more urgent section, entitled ‘Vers l’absente’ (an abstract epithet, or perhaps a tribute to the composer’s mother, who had shared the château at Malaret with him until her death in 1900?), features the Lisztian piano textures that can be found in other early Canteloube piano works before downwards-drifting patterns point the music towards Fauré. Then, after a noble chordal sequence, the rippling piano figurations from the very opening of the Suite return – as does the four-up, two-down shape, reconciled in the final bars with the Auvergnat melody.

Martin Anderson © 2004

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