“Sonates Françaises” = MARCELLE SOULAGE: Cello Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 31; PIERRE-OCTAVE FERROUD: Cello Sonata in A Major; PAUL VIARDOT: Cello Sonata – Genevieve Ibanez, cello/ Odile Bourin, p. – Skarbo/Anima DSK 4074 [Distr. by Albany], 58:57 ****:
“Felix Austria” = KODÁLY: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 4; Sonatina for Cello and Piano; LIGETI: Sonata for Solo Cello; BARTÓK: First Rhapsody; DVOŘÁK: Rondo in G Minor, Op. 94; JANÁČEK: Pohádka; DAVID POPPER: Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 68 – Pamela Smits, cello/ Sabine Simon, p. – Universe Classics HAC rec. 20101, 72:50 ****:
Here are two very interesting recordings that celebrate musical nationalism in chamber works for cello and piano. Or rather the first one, devoted to French composers, does. The second, rather ironically titled, documents the collapse of empire through works from countries that once made up that of Austria-Hungary.
First up, the Skarbo/Anima disc of French compositions, and right off the bat we have the definite advantage of novelty. These are fine works by little-known composers, even, I would imagine, little known in their native land. The most often recorded is Pierre-Octave Ferroud. In fact, there’s a Naïve recording of his Symphony in A Major and other works played by his hometown orchestra, the Lyon National; I’ll put that one down on my long, long wanted list. Ferroud was a student of Franck’s pupil Guy Ropartz and Florent Schmitt, of whom Ferroud would later write a biography. The composer’s contemporaries seemed to think he had real promise, and he would probably be better known today if he hadn’t died at age thirty-six, in a horrendous auto accident. I listened in vain for influences of either Franck or Schmitt in his work, though admittedly I’m familiar mostly with Schmitt’s opulent late-Romantic choral music. Instead, Ferroud’s Cello Sonata is crisply neo-Classical and sounds pretty individual. At least I can’t think of another composer that it sounds quite like—certainly not Ferroud’s friend Francis Poulenc, who mourned his early death. The sonata is light-textured and fairly lighthearted though without any of the tongue-in-cheek asides of Poulenc and others of Les Six.
Much heavier in character is Marcelle Soulage’s sonata in the rarely encountered key of F-sharp minor, traditionally thought of as conveying distress or even torment in music. Soulage’s Sonata starts in this mood certainly, though there is an oasis of calm beauty in the languid major-key second melody, which unfolds at a very leisurely pace, helping to stretch the first movement to a longish ten minutes. The opposition of the turbulent opening melody and its languid counterpart makes for an interestingly bipolar movement. The following Nocturne is mostly about contemplative repose though it has a more agitated, highly chromatic central section. The driven finale marked Allegro vivo makes for ultimate contrast. This is easily my favorite work on the program.
Marcelle Soulage (1894-1970) is herself an interesting figure. Born in Peru, she enrolled at the once male-dominated Conservatoire in Paris in 1911, studying piano and accompaniment with Nadia Boulanger. Soulage served as professor of piano at the Orléans Conservatoire and professor of music theory at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris (cellist Genevieve Ibanez’s alma mater, by the bye). Soulage’s Sonata Opus 31, written in 1919, was a prize winner, and I concur that it certainly has winning ways about it.
The most familiar name on the program, that of Paul Viardot (1957-1941), actually owes its familiarity to his mother, Pauline Viardot, one of the leading mezzos of the nineteenth century. Paul Viardot was best known as a violinist, and his catalog of works is sparse. His Cello Sonata is very much a high-Romantic work that somewhat recalls the music of Gabriel Fauré, who incidentally dedicated his First Violin Sonata to Viardot.
Even if the playing were less accomplished than it is, this would still be an important release for the gaps in the repertoire that it fills. But fortunately, Genevieve Ibanez and Odile Bourin play with passion and conviction, and produce some lovely sounds together in this mostly lovely music. Highly recommended!
I mentioned the rather ironic title of the second album under review. It refers to a Latin couplet attributed to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (d. 1490):
Bella gerant allii, tu felix Austria, nube
Nam quae Mars aliis, data tibi regna Venus.
(Let others wage wars, while you, fortunate Austria, conclude marriages.
For although others acquire kingdoms from Mars, you receive them from Venus.)
The strong alliance that the Austro-Hungarian Empire gained through marriages of political convenience held it together through much strife until World War I, after which the Allies carved it up into the separate nations represented by composers on this program: Hungary (Kodály), Hungary by way of Bulgaria (Bartók, Ligeti), and Czechoslovakia (Dvořák, Popper, Janáček). As the notes to the recording mention, Bartók composed an early (1903) tribute to the Hungarian freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth. (In fact, Kossuth may be just the Bartók piece for those who hate Bartók: it’s a lengthy tone poem with lots of Lisztian martial doings.) The Bohemian Smetana even put his life on the line, manning the barricades during the revolution of 1848. So the concept behind this album is to showcase works by composers who lived during and after the turmoil that led to the dissolution of felix Austria.
Concept or no, this CD is very welcome since it brings together a number of important and colorful works from central Europe. I’m always fascinated by the works for cello that Zoltan Kodály wrote during World War I, especially the monumental Sonata for Solo Cello. They represent a very much forward-looking composer that is hardly recognizable from the musical conservative that Kodály was eventually to become. But even the early Sonata for Cello and Piano (1910) shows the composer’s dedication to musical modernity and more, his lifelong quest to merge Western classical music with Hungarian folk influences.
Interestingly enough, Ligeti’s 1948 Solo Cello Sonata represents the composer in an uncharacteristic conservative vein. Like Bartók, Ligeti was born in Transylvania, educated in Budapest, and early on he became likewise a student of Hungarian and Romanian folk music, that influence reflected in his sonata, which unremarkably pays homage to both Kodály and Bartók. Later, of course, Ligeti would be identified with the musical avantgarde, but here he’s captured in his earlier very attractive folk-influenced mode.
The work by Bartók, too, shows that avantgardist writing in a more popular style, which he did from time to time to garner a wider audience. The familiar First Rhapsody is written in a bipartite form typical of Hungarian folk music, the first movement a languid slow movement (Lassú), the second, a bounding Allegretto (Friss); it’s the pattern Liszt follows in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. The last movement has the cellist wildly sawing away in an effort to capture the flavor of gypsy fiddling (the real thing, not the version purveyed in Viennese cafes).
With Antonín Dvořák and cellist-composer David Popper, we have native folk melody more comfortably yoked to Western musical form and gesture, Dvořák writing a very correct classical rondo and Popper filtering his gypsy influences through the lens of Western harmony and chord progression. In this company, Janáček’s Pohádka (“Fairy Tale”), based on the Russian tale of the Immortal Kaschei, sounds modern indeed, as this composer’s unique musical language always does.
Wonderful artistry here as well from the team of Pamela Smits and Sabine Simon, who play this often difficult music as if it presents no challenges, only rewards. When I first listened to the CD, I thought the sound favored the piano, placing Smits somewhat in the dark. Turning up the volume helped a great deal and revealed a recording that’s thoroughly natural sounding. Not all the music on this album is unfamiliar, but there are enough discoveries here to make it just as exciting as Sonates Françaises. By all means, if you have any interest in chamber music for cello, get both.