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CD Review

La Jeune France

  • André Jolivet: Épithalame
  • Olivier Messiaen: 5 Rechants
  • Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur: Le Cantique des Cantiques
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Coro COR16023 60:01
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Long-overdue focus on two neglected French masters. Stunning performances.

La jeune France, a loosely-confederated group of composers in the Thirties, consisted of André Jolivet, Olivier Messiaen, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, and Yves Baudrier. Baudrier, a self-taught composer and today the least-known member of the group, was the main force behind its formation and its principal financial backer. Messiaen and Daniel-Lesur had known one another since boyhood and had taken classes at the Conservatoire together. Jolivet, Varèse's only European pupil, provided a wide knowledge of the European avant-garde, including the works of Bartók, the Schoenberg circle, and even Charles Ives and Varèse himself. In many ways, it lacked a particular direction, unlike the theoretical unanimity of the Schoenberg group and the Stravinsky-and-Satie aesthetic bias of Les Six. It had formed mainly to get the composers' scores heard. A vague manifesto by Baudrier accompanied its concerts and spoke of wanting less abstraction, more spirituality, and more "humanity" in music. Frankly, French music already had that in Honegger, Milhaud, and Poulenc, not to mention Ravel. As a group, it definitely lacked some center that would make it cohere, despite the great worth of its members' scores. Indeed, today we tend to think of all these men as individual composers, rather than as members of a group.

I believe all three of the works here were written with the Ensemble vocal Marcel Couraud in mind. It may have been the only French choral group at the time that could have done justice to them. They all require a crack chorus. Harry Christophers's Sixteen surely qualify.

Jolivet occasionally attracts the interest of some star performer and then sinks below listener radar again. Seeking out his works, especially his concerti, will yield rewards. As with the Swiss-Dutch Frank Martin, there's a great deal of extremely good work awaiting the adventurous listener. Although he studied with Varèse, his mature work sounds nothing like, resembling more the Honegger of the Thirties and Forties. Jolivet's search for "spirituality" tended toward the primitive and the exotic. The Épithalame, written to commemorate the Jolivets' twentieth anniversary, combines nonsense syllables and a text on seeking a Jungian Eternal Feminine with choral writing that, like Stravinsky's Le Sacre, strives for an elemental power, mainly through rhythm.

Messiaen, although attracted to the primitive, also explicitly put his spirituality in service of the Catholic Church and indeed on the group's programs provided notes which announced his religious intent. The Cinq Rechants (5 refrains), like the Jolivet, set composite texts of French, Sanskrit, and nonsense in a Surrealist mix, which has something to do with the Tristan legend, according to the composer. The work seems musically modeled on, again, Le Sacre and on the Renaissance chansons of Claude le Jeune, particularly on the sumptuous "Revecy venir du printemps." Yet whereas the Jolivet strips his idiom to bareness, Messiaen approaches a more orchestral range of texture.

Daniel-Lesur is certainly the least-known of the composers here. Indeed, this is only one of two scores by him I've ever heard, but based on these two, I'm more than willing to take a chance on anything else. Undoubtedly the most conventional work on the CD, his Cantique des Cantiques (song of songs) fully lives up to the lushness of the text. The harmonies owe more to Debussy than to Stravinsky, and the textures aim more openly for richness. Still, counterpoint, not chords, is the name of the game here, as Daniel-Lesur sets the Solomonic verses against a Miserere (in the third section) and "Veni sponsa Christi" in the finale, thus tying to the Christian tradition of glossing the poem's eroticism as a metaphor for the soul's longing for Christ. For most listeners, this will be the most gorgeous work on the disc, and, although I hold out for the Messiaen, I wouldn't quarrel with the choice.

As I've said, even to get through any of these works requires a crackerjack group. Harry Christophers's Sixteen has always been a favorite over a wide range of repertoire, from Renaissance to Modern. I like their characteristically lean sound, especially appropriate to the Jolivet. Their diction, however, could stand improvement. With the text in front of you, you can't always tell what they sing, although it's not bad enough to mar rhythmic precision. I would also have preferred clearer textures in the Daniel-Lesur. Even with earphones I could hear neither the Miserere nor large parts of the "Pose moi comme un sceau sur ton coeur" (set me as a seal upon your heart). Nevertheless, in spite of this, it's a staggeringly fine performance, by far the best of the currently-available. For hard-core choral fans, one of the albums of the year.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz