“ANDRÉ JOLIVET: Collection: Piano Volume 3” = Piano Sonata No. 1; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra – Pascal Gallet, piano/ Duisburger Philharmoniker/ Jonathan Darlington – Maguelone MAG 111.171 [Distr. by Naxos], 47:00 ****:
Like a number of composers who started out embracing the avant-garde, Andre Jolivet (1905–1974) experienced a change of heart and of musical direction, starting with the Piano Sonata featured on the current CD. Jolivet’s earliest influences were the Impressionists, though he soon discovered Edgar Varèse (whose wild-and-crazy use of percussion instruments Jolivet obviously cultivated) and then Schoenberg. The two composers became the models for the “directed atonality” that characterized his work during the 1930s. After listening to the Sonata several times, I was surprised to learn that it was dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók, who had died the year before the work was written (1945) and whose music it sounds nothing like. Except for the driving rhythms in the work of both composers. But unlike Bartók, whose pieces are fueled by wild syncopations derived from Central European folk sources, Jolivet seems to rely on oft-repeated ostinato figures to impel his music.
However, the embrace of tonality and rhythmic drive are characteristic of the turn that Jolivet’s music took in the ‘40s, as he abandoned atonality and searched for a simpler, less intellectualized basis for musical expression. Like Bartók, he found inspiration in musical primitivism, and like Messiaen, with whom Jolivet founded the group La jeune France, he also tried to cultivate a more spiritually-grounded music. (Also, like Charles Koechlin earlier in the century, Jolivet bridled at the emotional coolness of neoclassicism and found Stravinsky antithetical to French musical values.)
For me, the Sonata makes a curious impression probably because, as Mathilde Vallespir writes in the notes to this recording, the structure of the outer movements “relies on a continuous progression. . . An accelerating movement together with an increasingly rapid beat and careful thematic structure creates this impression.” The result is fast movements that become increasingly faster and more breathless together with the feeling that themes are being not so much developed as intensified to the point of mania. If that’s a valid assessment, then the work is really bipolar, because the slow movement is static; here, an almost stunned quietude and placidity take over. What this approach seems to lack is a sense of emotional development, an emotive progression from Point A to Point B and maybe a synthesizing Point C. To some listeners, this may be a strength; and some may see things entirely differently than I do.
At any rate, I find Jolivet’s Concerto of 1948–50 much more successfully incorporates the idea of musical primitivism. Actually, the same sorts of structural principles apply in the Concerto: there’s a constant accretion of musical density and speed in the outer movements, relieved by relative calm at the center (the Senza rigore second movement, which nonetheless works itself up to a pitch that sounds at one point like the musical portrayal of a prize fight). But the color imparted by the large percussion section and by the piano as it becomes now solo instrument, now part of the orchestral fabric, gives the Concerto a protean unpredictability that it shares with Messiaen’s Turangaliîa-Symphonie of the same era. It’s not entirely clear whether Jolivet’s influences are African drumming or Eastern gamelan or some other extra-European musical source, but as with the Messiaen work the result is unique—unique enough, apparently, to cause a scandal at the Concerto’s 1951 premiere.
Pianist Pascal Gallet, who studied with Yvonne Loriod among other modern-music specialists, certainly has the chops and understanding to play this very demanding music and seems to have it down just about note perfect even in the live recording of the Piano Concerto. The Duisburg Philharmonic, one of the many German regional orchestras that’s been around forever (over 125 years, in this case), plays with real abandon for its English music director Jonathan Darlington. String tone may be a little light, but a lack of plushness is hardly a demerit in music that celebrates musical primitivism. Maguelone’s live recording is surprisingly detailed and powerful, while the studio recording of the Sonata is just fine. This is important music; remarkably, Gallet has the field just about to himself. But only forty-seven minutes’ playing time?