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CD Review

A Side of French

  • Darius Milhaud: La création du monde, Op. 81
  • Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht: La Nursery - 3rd Suite "La métamorphose d'Ève"
  • Francis Poulenc: Aubade for Piano and 18 instruments
  • Jacques Ibert: Divertissement for Chamber Orchestra
Claudia Hoca, piano
Philharmonia Virtuosi/Richard Kapp
Essay CD1086 73:24
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Le fun grande.

Great French art in general tends to swing between the modest and the grandiose. For a Berlioz, there's a Bizet. For a Méhul, there's a Messiaen. I confess that – genius excepted – the modest attracts me more. This CD – all live recordings, by the way – features that, to me, distinctly and profoundly French sensibility of mesure.

Milhaud's Creation of 1923 by now has achieved the status of Modernist Classic and these days gets mentioned in music-history books as a pioneering score of the heady post-World War I period that fell in love with American le jazz hot. However, most European composers who invoked jazz had never actually heard it. Stravinsky wrote that he composed his Ragtime having seen only sheet music. Shippers used American sheet music as ballast on transatlantic crossings and then sold off what they could. Milhaud, however, stood as a conspicuous exception. He had heard jazz in Harlem played by black bands. I think this experience – not counting its wit and high level of invention, of course – sets his score apart from others. Creation captures like few other jazz-inspired works the sinuous melancholy and the low-down high spirits of early jazz. But it's also got something more going for it than exuberance. Milhaud indulges in effortless contrapuntal virtuosity, at one point seeming to juxtapose every single theme in the piece. It's a score I, for one, have taken for granted. It exudes so much inspiration, I tend not to focus on all its headwork. Note Creation's relatively high opus number. Milhaud still had fifty very active composing years to go.

I tend to prefer American players in this work, although I've found exceptions. Growing up with jazz rhythms "in the air," so to speak, they tend to more firmly connect Milhaud's written notes with the performing jazz tradition, as Charles Rosen and Richard Taruskin might put it. Indeed, in that regard, Kapp and the Philharmonia Virtuosi come up with one of the most free-wheeling performances of this piece I've heard. Their enthusiasm overcomes any momentary roughness, and the occasional roughness may even enhance the work. They certainly know one of the most essential things about it: it's fun.

Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965) had a substantial conducting career in France, where they esteemed him especially for his Debussy. Indeed, I first encountered his name as the "arranger" of a performing abridgement of Debussy's massive Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. He also composed, turning out music somewhere between Debussy and Les Six. La Nursery began as collections of piano pieces on French children's songs, which Inghelbrecht later orchestrated. He did them beautifully, reminiscent of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, but slightly drier. They glow with the imaginative elegance of a Chanel suit. None of the items in the third suite last longer than two-and-a-half minutes, but you never feel cheated. I particularly enjoyed "Sur le pont d'Avignon," which an inspired Inghelbrecht turns into a little bransle. On the other hand, La metamorphose d'Eve, a short ballet running slightly longer than twelve minutes, shows what the composer can do with a little more room. In four large sections, it takes a theme on a window-shopping tour of various styles. I have no idea of the ballet's plot, but I might guess that it concerns Woman's transformations from Eden to the flapper Twenties. Again, the composer uses his instruments sparingly. Large tracts of the piece are taken up with flute and harp all by themselves. Debussy's faun, sacred and profane dances, and Golliwog flit through here and there, but catching these things is really beside the point. Inghelbrecht makes something delightful of his own. Kapp and his band deliver performances almost heartbreakingly fresh – a splendid introduction to this composer.

Poulenc's Aubade (1929) for piano and 18 instruments began life as a ballet given in a private salon. Poulenc was told that the room would hold only that many instruments, and he tailored the work accordingly. The plot concerns Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and her sacrifice for love, but these days one more often encounters the work as a Konzertstueck for piano and chamber group. The piece shows, as much as any Poulenc work of the decade, the influence of Stravinsky, particularly the towering Oedipus Rex, whose lessons Poulenc assimilates and makes over into an evocation, not of the ancient Greece of savage myth, but of the Greece loved and modified by the French Age of Reason. In his early music, Poulenc cut up a bit, with works like the Rapsodie negre, Cocardes, and Les Biches. There's some of that in the Aubade, but there's a new restraint and a bittersweet as well that permeate the score, that look ahead to Poulenc's religious works and to the organ concerto. They may very well characterize Diana's regret at her renunciation of love. Kapp and pianist Claudia Hoca emphasize the Stravinskian elements of the ballet more than any other performance I've heard, with sharp, sec attacks and, in the piano, not much pedal, unless where the score indicates. Prêtre, for example, gives more weight to the music, as if this were the equivalent of Stravinsky's piano concerto. Kapp makes it into a true chamber piece and, not coincidentally, reveals Poulenc as a better architect than most writers give him credit for. Either way, the score stands as a masterpiece, and the juxtaposition of both points of view disclose unsuspected depths in the entertainment.

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) has suffered the fall of the great. At one time he was central in French musical life, a distinguished teacher and influential in several important arts institutions. His name has been kept alive through one piece – the atypical, Impressionistic Escales. The Divertissement (1928), which began life as incidental music for Rene Clair's movie Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (an Italian straw hat), shows the influence of Satie and Les Six. It's knockabout music that matches perfectly the Keatonish world of the film. The opening and final movements are the most extreme, moving past Keaton to Keystone Kops in their losing-one's-head frenzy. Along the way, we get good-natured digs at Mendelssohn's wedding march (this seemed to provide Twenties composers with a lot of sport; Ibert is not alone) and, in the "Waltz," Johann Strauss pere et fils, naturally. Ibert swung between the Dreamy-Debussy and Slapstick-Satie poles most of his career. I find his Impressionism a lot less winning, or even interesting, than his slapstick.

Again, Kapp and his players know how to have a good time with this music. Furthermore, although the music may run heedlessly headlong, the composer doesn't. There's a great deal of intricate craft in the score, which the performers let you know about. Despite the inevitable glitches of a live recording – audience noise, etc. – these performances don't wear out their welcome. I'm giving this CD to at least one Francophile I know.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz