PIERNE: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 = BBC Philharmonic – Chandos

Pianist Bavouzet and conductor Mena revisit the music of Pierne with effective results.  

PIERNE: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 = Paysages franciscains, Op. 43; Les Cathedrales; Scherzo-Caprice, Op. 25; Poeme symphonique, Op. 37; Fantasie-Ballet, Op. 6; Nocturne en forme de valse, Op. 40, No. 2; Etude de concert, Op. 13 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, p./ BBC Philharmonic/ Juanjo Mena – Chandos CHAN 10871, 72:58 (9/25/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

A celebrated pupil of Cesar Franck and Jules Massenet, Gabriel Pierne (1863-1937) established himself early, winning first prize for piano performance (1879) and later, in 1882, the coveted Prix de Rome.  Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, as a complement to his having recorded the Pierne Piano Concerto in c minor (CHAN 10633), decided to explore the Pierne oeuvre further with conductor Juanjo Mena, inscribing (17-19 July 2014) another series of works meant to expand our general familiarity with his legacy.

Though immersed in his duties as conductor of the Colonne Orchestra, Pierne had found time for composition, having written an oratorio on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, even as the clouds of WW I had begun to form over Europe’s skies. The Paysages franciscains (1919) reflect much of the Debussy syntax, set in three sections, of which the first, Au jardin de Sainte Claire, illumines the setting of the St. Damien convent, where Claire protected the premises from the marauding troops of Emperor Frederick II.  The atmosphere remains peaceful and entirely aerial, rife with hints of plainsong. Les Olivaies de la plaine d’Assise expansively describes a twilight setting, utilizing a kind of pentatonic, scalar pattern that permeates the movement in tones that remind us of Debussy’s Iberia and his St. Sebastien.  The last picture-panel, Sur le route de Poggio-Bustone, depicts a legendary confrontation between Francis and the Archangel Gabriel. The hymn Pange lingua pervades the processional.  The use of canon and brass effects makes us think that Respighi might have claimed this work. The BBC achieves a mighty peroration here, at once compelling and hypnotic.

Les Cathedrales (1915) bears the inscription “Prelude pour le poeme dramatique de M. Eugene Morand,” and means to pay tribute to the devastations of WW I.  We might recall that musical intellectuals like Romain Rolland strongly urged an anti-war campaign.  The opening harmonies of this dark work – a chromatic version of ‘La Marseillaise’ – certainly embrace Cesar Franck and his Wagnerian allegiances. Conductor Mena opts for Pierne’s version of the score that omits the chorus, who sing the orchestral counterpart of “O Domine, exaudi nos Jesu, exaudi nos.”  Horns and harp accompany the strings in a rising apotheosis, a martial lament with trumpets and snare drum, much in the spirit of the Abel Gance film classic J’Accuse.

The remainder of the program features the keyboard, with and without orchestral accompaniment. The Scherzo-Caprice (1890) has the subtitle, Valse symphonique, enjoys a thoroughly Franckian syntax, possibly after that composer’s Les Djinns. But other than the dazzling roulades, the general tone of the waltz sequence reminds us more of Chabrier’s light and glittery heart. Recall that Franck admired Liszt, whose penchant for interior modulation and transformation of theme finds an adherent in Pierne.  After Franck’s death in 1890, Pierne assumed his organ duties at Ste. Clothilde, but in 1901 he took up a career as freelance pianist-composer. Poeme symphonique from that year exploits once more the tradition of Cesar Franck, darkly virtuosic, and dedicated to another keyboard master, Edouard Risler.  Here, the dark middle section of Franck’s Symphonic Variations seems to rule. Brass fanfares join the tympani to create a stupendous, processional effect, maybe in debt to the Liszt A Major Concerto. A new section emerges, announced by high piano arpeggios and orchestral string trills, all leading to more counterpoint, an energetically jubilant fugato of decisive power.

The relatively early Fantasie-Ballet (1886) enjoys a shared history with the Saint-Saens’ showpiece, Wedding Cake, Op. 76, both meant as gifts to Caroline de Serres on the occasion of her second marriage. The piece deftly combines aspects of the Massenet lyricism with the flashy, bravura piano style of Franck and Saint-Saens. The opening chords from Bavouzet announce his readiness to play the Rachmaninov c-sharp minor Prelude upon request. The orchestra responds – maybe retaliates – Grandioso, with a processional that might have aroused Verdi to new heights. The glittery fioritura, interrupted by an oboe in a Sicilian mode, seems pure Saint-Saens, especially his Op. 60 memoirs of Algiers. Alternations of minor and major modes in glossy scoring will lead to a smooth waltz, almost a salon recollection a la Chopin. With a spirit Allegro con fuoco, almost a Mendelssohn saltarello, the brilliant pyrotechnics resume, with a carefree virtuosity that more than once had me thinking of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

The two solo piano pieces, Nocturne en forme de valse (1903) and Etude de concert (1887) reveal, respectively, a soulful and barnstorming side to Pierne’s musical character. The Etude is dedicated to Louis Diemer, who, if memory serves taught Robert Casadesus.

The Steinway piano sound effectively impresses us throughout, courtesy of Mike George and Stephen Rinker.

—Gary Lemco

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