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CLASSICAL  February 2006

CLASSICAL February 2006

Subject:

A side of French

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 20 Feb 2006 05:51:33 -0800

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    French Dressing

  *  Milhaud: La creation du monde, op. 81
  *  Inghelbrecht:
      - La Nursery - 3rd Suite
      - La metamorphose d'Eve
  *  Aubade for piano and 18 instruments
  *  Ibert: Divertissement for chamber orchestra

  Claudia Hoca, piano
  Philharmonia Virtuosi/Richard Kapp
  Essay CD1086 Total time: 73:24

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 Mehul, 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.

Desire-Emile 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.
Pretre, 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.

Steve Schwartz

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