Historical recordings, for the serious Koechlin and/or Désor
Discophage | France | 03/22/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Koechlin's music at its best sounds like Honegger's but with more mysticism and more lushness of sound. Those who already know Koechlin need no such introduction of course, and the others are strongly advised to investigate, it they have some appreciation for the mildly modernist music of Honegger and Groupe des Six, and the sensuous orchestrations of Ravel (especially Daphnis) or Villa Lobos.
However, this disc's appeal is limited to seasoned Koechlin collectors. Released in 1993 in collaboration with the Charles Koechlin Association, it conveniently collates recordings made by the great French conductor and staunch Koechlin champion Roger Désormière. "Les Eaux Vives" op. 160 (track 7), a piece from 1936, is the oldest recording on the disc: it was made in March and April 1937, a few months BEFORE the composition's Premiere, on June 20. It was a commission for the "Festival of Light", part of the 1937 Paris "International Exhibition of Arts and Technologies in Modern Life", to accompany a show of Light and Water given on the banks of the Seine river. Other such "occasional" pieces were also commissioned from Aubert, Ibert, Honegger, Le Flem, Milhaud, Messiaen, Schmitt and others.
Running 23 minutes, the scope of Les Eaux-Vives is way beyond the occasion that gave birth to it. Koechlin's contribution adds to the normal orchestra no less than six saxophones, a piano and an Ondes Martenot. The music goes through a variety of moods and styles, some mysterious and mystical, some march-like and sweepingly triumphant, some light-spirited and easy-listening in the vein of Koechlin's cinema-inspired compositions: "Dances for Ginger" or "Seven-Star Symphony". The work wasn't played live but pre-recorded and aired during the show through loudspeakers. It was subsequently released on 78rpms by the then French label Les Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre. Koechlin expressed his satisfaction with the recording, when he was able to hear it on one of his student's state-of-the-art amplifier. The transfers are excellent, with minimal surface scratches - but don't expect 1937 Hi-Fi to be still up to today's standards.
Sonata for Clarinet and Orchestra (the orchestration made in 1946 of a Clarinet and Piano Sonata from 1923) and the 4th movement, "Calme sur la mer" (Calm waters on the sea), from Partita for Chamber Orchestra (1945) were recorded for the same label in 1947, with a so-called "Ensemble Orchestral de l'Oiseau-Lyre". The sonics sound almost older than the recording made ten years before, and the music is the least interesting: the mood is gentle, pastoral and light-hearted. There is little there of Koechlin the sensuous mystic.
"Le Buisson Ardent" is the longest and most substantial piece on the disc, and it is given here in the live recording of the Première, made on November 19, 1951. The composition is a symphonic poem after an episode from the then-famous French writer Romain Rolland's novel "Jean-Christophe". The second part was written first, as early as 1938 (and it bears a specific opus number as well). Koechlin resumed work on the piece and completed Part I in 1945. The music is echt-Koechlin, one of his best compositions, on the same plane with The Jungle Book. The orchestra is huge (including five saxophones, an Ondes Martenot, a piano, an organ, and a sizeable set of percussion). The orchestration is refined, lush and sensuous, mysterious and highly evocative, the mood goes from the broodingly mystic to the wild and unruly passion. Villa Lobos' magnificent Amazonian compositions came to mind (see my reviews ofGenesis / Erosao / Amazonas or Villa-Lobos/Prokofiev/Debussy), and, in some of the most mystical passages, it is clear where Messiaen took the inspiration for "L'Ascension" or "Les Offrandes oubliées". Part II seemed more square and less refined than Part I. Sonics are mono, without much bloom and presence (but that seems to have been a long-lasting problems with the sound engineers from the French Radio and/or those from Pathé, since the studio recordings made by Villa Lobos of his own music with Orchestre National between 1954 and 1958 do not show much improvement, at least in the transfers made by EMI France for their box Villa-Lobos par lui-même.)
So all these reissues are of great historical interest to the serious Koechlin and/or Désormière collector. Still, whatever the legitimacy of Désormière in these works and his immense interpretive merits, what these recordings will never provide is the lushness of sound that Koechlin's music requires. So newcomers to Koechlin or people only looking for good recordings in up-to-date sound of these works (and especially "Le Buisson ardent") should go to modern recordings, like Segerstam's: Koechlin: Sur les flots lointains Op130; Buisson Ardent Op203.
Excellent liner notes, TT a generous 70:30. Incidentally, the label is absolutely not Wergo, but "The Classical Collector", a French label run by the French public radio's specialist in old recordings, Philippe Morin, who was responsible for the transfers. I've updated product info, but that usually takes quite a while to register.