KOECHLIN: Les heures persanes – Ralph van Raat, piano – Naxos 8.572473, 56:44 ****:
The music of Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was not unknown to me prior to having auditioned his 1916-1919 sixteen-part piano suite Les heures persanes, Op. 65. Conductors Antal Dorati and Roger Desormiere, respectively, had introduced me to this musical exotic, via his settings of Rudyard Kipling’s Bandar-log and his music for a light-show, Les eaux vives. Known for his esoteric studies in astronomy, mythology, and travel diaries, Koechlin became a movie fanatic, evolving a huge crush on cinema star Ginger Rogers. From his teachers Jules Massenet and Gabriel Faure, Koechlin maintained a devotion to Bach and strict counterpoint, and he worked with Debussy’s approval on orchestrating several of that composer’s scores, including Pelleas et Melisande and Khamma. When it comes to Koechlin’s keyboard music, he favors modes, polytonality, and even atonality; but his favorite key is E Major.
The Persian Hours derives from a book, Vers Ispahan, a diary by voluptuary Pierre Loti, recounting a long journey through Persia. That this account and the subsequent music might have influenced Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky remains a definite possibility. The individual pieces capture different times of the day, embracing two and a half days total. A Siesta before departure opens the suite, in which he dreams of a traveling caravan, music touched perhaps by Borodin. L’escalade obscure (The dark ascent) concludes the opening half-day.
The first full day opens with Matin frais, dans la haute vallee (Fresh morning in the high valley), a sunrise that permit’s the first glimpse of humanity. En vue de la ville and A travers les rues signify our arrival at a busy town‘s bustling streets, with liquid transformations of chromatic harmony, a mix of Faure, Liszt, and Debussy. Chant du soir (Evening song), marked Tres calme, exploits whole tones. We move directly into Debussy territory in Clair de lune sue les terrasses (Moonlight on the terraces), a few pentatonic steps away from Debussy’s Pagodes. Many of the pieces evolve on three staves, the orchestral effects quite intentional.
The second day begins with a trickling morning serenade, an Aubade, which nods to Ravel. A moment of contemplation ensues, Roses au soleil de midi (Roses in the midday sun), sheltered from its heat in the shade of a cooling fountain, A l’Ombre, pres de la fontaine de marbre (In the shade, near a marble fountain). The open chords and staccati of the Roses remind us of effects Saint-Saens employs in his Egyptian Concerto. An interruption occurs at No. 12 with Arabesques: Allegro non troppo, which assumes some of Schoenberg’s aesthetics. The fountain rills echo Faure; and at last the day ends with a sunset behind some hills, in the spirit of the Debussy prelude of like character, Les collines, au coucher de soleil.
The No. 14, another interlude, proves the longest of the set, Le conteur (The storyteller). We have four brief narratives: Le pecheur et le genni; Le palais enchante; Danse d’adolescents; Clair de lune sur les jardins, the titles of which point to The Arabian Nights and sequences from Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Broken-tone passages illuminate a hazy world of flesh and fantasy, a mix of Debussy and Bartok, Satie and Stravinsky. Magic and gamelan tones weave a luxurious tapestry of sound, soft bells and gongs, chimes and occult tambourines. The music can be percussive, but the patina Raat projects on his sonorous Steinway (rec. 11-12 August 2010) never becomes harsh or ugly.
The suite proper concludes with two more tone pictures, reminiscent of Ravel and Debussy, Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Cathedrale Engloutie: La paix du soir au cimitiere (Evening peace in the cemetery) and Derviches dans la nuit; Clair de lune sur la place deserte (Dervishes in the night; Moonlight on a deserted spot). What in Ravel plays as a gibbet becomes in Koechlin’s cemetery an etude in static motion whose harmonies and free rhythms verge on late Liszt. Typically, Koechlin’s fermatae last forever. The dervish dance presents a bass-heavy etude with explosive runs and thick layers of sound. The music breaks off to expose us to bare chards and ostinati like a clock chime, an oriental dappling of sound suggestive of opiates or reveries recalled by Coleridge or Proust. The caravans of the mind trek onward.
A grand tour of Beethoven’s Middle Period Piano Sonatas