“Climate Changes” = POULENC: Cello Sonata; DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata; JACQUELINE FONTYN: Six Climats; MESSIAEN: “’Louange a l’eternite de Jesus” from Quartet for the End of Time; BONUS DVD: DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata; Rehearsal of the POULENC: Cello Sonata – Jan Pas, cello/ Stefano Vismara, piano – Evil Penguin Records Classic 009 CD + DVD, CD: 56:48, DVD: 24:12 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Jan Pas is cellist for the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and has assembled an interesting program revolving around the French abandonment of traditional opera and ballet idioms starting around 1870 with the advent of Saint-Saens’s latent nationalism, and ending with a fairly new work by a Brussels composer whose lessening the stringencies of serialism allow her to enter the impressionist foray that haunts each of these pieces.
One might question the nature of impressionism as it pertains to Poulenc’s 1948 Cello Sonata, but a few bars of the second movement show that linkage to be anything but speculative. The first movement shows a very distinctive move away from the purely neoclassical ramblings of his earlier chamber music to a very pronounced nod towards, of all people, Brahms. It’s no wonder that this piece was so heavily criticized—still is—but from a distance of 60 years now we can certainly appreciate its beauties without the ball-and-chain of preconceived notions as to what his style should really be. The Debussy is a piece that reflected the composer’s first turn to chamber music. He created this sonata, which was to be the first of six, in 1915, subtitled initially “Pierrot angry with the moon”. But discard that—in the end it does little good. Instead listen to the alternating shifts between the archaism of the early Baroque and the frequent ventures into the world of rhythmic uneasiness and his patented whole-tone chords.
Fontyn taught counterpoint at the Brussels Conservatory, and uses these Six Climats as a way of poetically engaging the listener in a tour of climate change as miniature etudes written for talented students. The piece is mildly engaging when considered apart from its obvious titles, of which there are no audible connections to these ears. Taken as pure music they represent nothing bold or new—thank goodness—and yet seem trapped in the conventions of sixties serialism. Nonetheless there are moments of real interest, though the piece seems oddly out of touch with the heavies on the rest of the program. Quartet for the end of time is of course a Messiaen standard. The strange scoring of the work (piano, clarinet, cello, violin) reflects the fact that this was written from a POW camp in the Second World War, and this is what was available to the composer—one wonders what the inmates thought of this first genuine masterpiece from the man. This is the fifth movement of the quartet, with its long-lined cello melody and ecstatic utterances.
I like the way Pas and pianist Stefano Vismara play all of this music, vibrant and not holding back on the passion, something that often deadens music from this genre. The sound is also very rich and deep. The video documentary is like “a day in the life of Jan Pas”, while the rehearsal of the Poulenc and performance of the Debussy are very nicely done with superb picture quality and sound, though I would rather have had another piece offered on the CD and skipped the DVD—but they didn’t ask me.
— Steven Ritter
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