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“French Music” – works of CHAUSSON: Sym. in B-flat; Poeme de L’Amour; DEBUSSY: Printemps – Praga Digitals

The colorful, Symbolist scores of Ernest Chausson receive classic accounts by Munch and Barbirolli.

French Music = CHAUSSON: Symphony in B-flat Major, Op. 20; Poeme de L’Amour et de la Mer, Op .19; DEBUSSY: Printemps – Symphonic Suite – Kathleen Ferrier, contr./ Halle Orch./ Sir John Barbirolli/ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch (Chausson Symphony and Debussy) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 345, 74:58 (11/25/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Artur Nikisch conducted Ernest Chausson’s Symphonie in 1897, earning the work the epithet “masterpiece” in Paris, Brussels and Barcelona, on a par with Beethoven’s or Schumann’s symphonies. My own first exposure to this scintillating, exciting work came via Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony on CBS (ML 4141), then soon after, with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony on Bluebird LP (LBC 1056).  The Symphony (1890) owes many debts to Cesar Franck in terms of structure and its cyclic arrangement of themes. Charles Munch directs a performance from Boston 26 February 1962.

The Chausson Symphony enjoys from Munch and his responsive BSO a spacious and ominous opening Lent, whose motivic elements will return at the work’s conclusion to bring cyclic closure to the composition. The horn and bassoon apply the melody in triple meter that launches the sonata-form movement proper. The violas, the clarinet, and the cellos fill out the flowing, secondary theme. Staccato motion marks he development, interrupted by expansive utterances taken from both the introduction and the main theme. Scalar patterns gather power for the recapitulation.

Marked Tres lent and in d minor, the music of the second movement demands to be played “with great intensity of expression.” Between the solo violin and English horn, Chausson produces a tragic affect that benefits inestimably from the Munch approach. A sense of heroic optimism concludes the movement, just as the whirlwind, rondo Anime bursts forth, given a kind of martial impetuosity from strings, winds, and trumpet. Like his master Franck, Chausson can invoke a hymn or chorale doxology when he requires it for contrast. With themes incorporated from the first movement, the texture of the finale assumes vividly active proportions. The coda provides an epilogue of sorts, a moody commentary that Munch gives an elegiac character.

Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) introduced Kathleen Ferrier to the Poeme de l’amour et de la mer, a setting of a poem by Maurice Bouchor and dedicated to Henri Duparc, composed between 1882 and 1890. The work comprises two distinct sections connected by an orchestral interlude. Barbirolli played in the cello section of the orchestra at the work’s London premiere, on 29 May 1919 at Queen’s Hall, conducted by Geoffrey Toye. This performance comes from Manchester’s Deansgate on 9 March 1951, and offers Ferrier’s superb account of this masterly score, a work which had obviously come to mean something very personal to her and to Barbirolli. A few days before Kathleen Ferrier died, the conductor visited her in hospital. He was clearly deeply moved on that occasion when she sang the opening of the Chausson (as Barbirolli recalled), “in a voice with all the bloom and tender ache of spring in it…the glory that was hers remained untouched.” The sound quality of this historic reading is compromised, and bars 129-133 of the first movement La Fleur des Eaux are missing.

The score resonates with Symbolist images: lilacs, the sea, dead leaves, the moon. The ever-shifting harmonies contribute to a restless world whose rue meaning eludes us or remains mercurial. Bits of Wagner’s Parsifal drift by. A passionate first section keeps addressing an unknown, female inamorata, the consummation with whom the entire work gravitates. Solos on bassoon and violin provide the transition to the interlude; then, the second section opens with an atmosphere made more outgoing by open, diatonic harmony. Images of dead leaves and the persona’s having been forgotten move to the solo cello combined with the Ferrier’s haunted voice in the full melody. The world of lilacs, fragrances, roses, coalesce in a vision that both embraces and eludes death, at once.

Munch (1962) ushers in the 20th century, declaiming Debussy’s Printemps (1887-1913) as a wonderful and sincere tribute to Fauré, as orchestrated by Henri Buesser. The two movements function as a prelude and dance, a gradual Spring blossoming and the celebration of new life. Debussy wanted the work to parallel the Nocturne Sirenes, with orchestra and wordless chorus, but the treatment was lost. Along wth the Beecham account of Printemps, this by Munch sparkles with a decisive joi de vivre.

—Gary Lemco

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