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Charles Koechlin

Piano Quintet op.80
Quartet n° 3 op.72

The Antigone Quartet
Sarah Lavaud, piano


Piano quintet opus 80 for two violins, alto, cello and piano

The obscure wait of what shall be...
The ennemy attack – The wound
Consoling Nature
Finale – The Joy

Quartet n° 3 opus 72

Very clam

Art Director and Sound Engineer: Jean-Marc Laisné.
Recorded at the Tibor Varga Studio, Grimisuat, Switzerland, on 1st to 5th December 2008.
Booklet : Ludovic Florin.

AR RE-SE 2009-1

Peace Regained or A Transfiguration of the Abominable

Charles Koechlin, a charming, highly original figure of the world’s musical landscape, is just beginning to get the recognition he deserves with the music-lovers. A glance at a picture of him tells you without a doubt that the bearded man with the kind, secret face was a daydreamer. But a productive one, at that, with a catalogue of more than two hundred works that bear a ­concrete testimony to his artistic and human commitment. This is probably one of the keys to this musician’s inner world: the word “commitment” must be construed in its fullest meaning. In a certain way, his music reflects not only a highly personal poetic expression but also his involvement in public life. Thus, it is not surprising to find that he was among the founding members of the Société Musicale Indépendante or that he was a member of the French Communist Party between the two wars. A profoundly honest human being, convinced of art’s ability to help the enlightenment and improvement of mankind, Koechlin put his imagination and his will at the heart of each of his works. He could have used for himself Bachelard’s idea that “Imagination enlightens the will and comes along with a will to imagine, to live what one has imagined.” Between daydreaming and careful craftsmanship, each work is the product of a profound sincerity, a slow breeding, which requires the same intensity from the listener.

It is beyond doubt that his shock at the First World War unconsciously prompted the works presented here. Anger was its first action and determined its course. Although the Third Quartet only expresses the absurdity of the slaughter in an explicit way in its scherzo, the feelings elicited by the terrible tragedy prompted the birth of the Piano Quintet. After the dreadful horror of World War I, the Europeans entered for good in the modern era, in which the trust in the ability of men to live together was shattered and the machines were set to take care of everything in a more and more inhumane universe. This disillusionment is also noticeable in the musicians of the time. Some of them will be in denial and take refuge in the exhilaration of another, more frivolous and at times superficial life (the Group of Six, Kurt Weill, Respighi), others will emphasize their strong pessimism (Ravel, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Berg). These two works by Koechlin are part of this trend.

Contrary to the Second Quartet, opus 57, which was premiered more than sixty years after its composition – in Lüneburg on November 28, 1987, by the Charles Koechlin Ensemble (Otfrid Nies, Jürgen Klein, Martin Straakholder, Claudia Schwarze) –, the composer’s third and last Quartet, was quickly performed. Its main ideas were set between June 13, 1913 and August 18, 1919, but Koechlin finished it between August 19, 1919 and August 15, 1921, as can be seen in the drafts conserved at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The premiere took place three years later, on January 20, 1924, in Mulhouse. It was then played several times by the Pro Arte Quartet who premiered it, and quickly became fairly renowned, since other interpreters included it in their repertoire, for instance the Krettly Quartet who played it again as early as 1925 in Paris, at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante. By comparison to his first two quartets, this work unfolds in a more concise, free style and confirms an obvious evolution in the composer’s style. Although the form of the movements is increasingly less pre-established, there is nothing unnecessary or neglected. Quite the contrary, everything seems essential. The first movement could be summed up as a succession of melodies in an atmosphere both archaic-like and modern that is typical of Koechlin and somewhat reminiscent of his Sonatines for piano (it is interesting to note, by the way, that the last movement of this Quartet was initially intended to be the last movement of the Second Sonatine française op.60 for four-hand piano). As in many of his other works, Koechlin here seems to adapt the florid Renaissance counterpoint, not only through his use of modes, but also because each part is a song in itself. The great elasticity of the melodic lines may also come across as a lesson learned from the musical principles of the Middle Ages (let us not forget that Koechlin was a specialist of the Gregorian modes). However, his work does not sound as a slavish imitation; any given harmonic superimposition or friction hints without a doubt to twentieth-­century music. The Scherzo is in complete contrast with what precedes. In it can be heard flourishes of trumpets or ­timpani sounds (as per the directions written on the score) which, far from an extolling of heroism, rather sound as sarcasm. This page paves the way for Shostakovich and will have an influence on the Group of Six, a fact that is rarely highlighted, even though Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre all followed Koechlin’s teaching. In a sour harmonic context, the whole of this first movement oscillates between polytonality and tonality and goes as far as atonality in its central part. As a total contrast, the following Adagio starts with an absolutely peaceful C major. This serenity modulates into a strange, arresting extasis, before going back to the initial plenitude. In the manner of the baroque suites, Koechlin then devises a lively jig to close his work. He reveals a new aspect of his personality by offering us a straightforward, direct music, almost popular in its verve. A central section brings about a new theme which seems to come from country folklore but was written by the composer himself. After a new appearance of the scherzo arpeggi, this time devoid of any sarcasm, this finale, having gone through the most extreme tonalities, finishes in a luminous, whirling peroration in unison.

The Piano Quintet opus 80 is a masterpiece that presents the listener with a quite unique experience in the realm of chamber music. Indeed, this is an attempt by Koechlin to translate the suffering of war into “pure” music, chamber music. Only Hermann Zilcher (1881-1948) and Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), on the other side of the Rhine, made the same experiment. Although never directly confronted with enemy fire in the trenches – he was exempted after catching tuberculosis in the 1880s –, Koechlin felt in his flesh the anguish of the disaster. For an extremely sensitive person such as the musician, the gunshots heard from afar, the ration coupons, the friends’ tales and the vision of the “gueules cassées” (veterans with facial traumas) were quite enough. Koechlin creates an imaginary scenario of sorts, whose outline can be found in the titles given to each movement: “The Obscure Wait of What shall be…”, “The Enemy Attack… The Wound”, “Consoling Nature…” and “Joy”. The work’s Beethovenian character – through its progression from shadows to light, but also through its grand design and its concern for an absolute musical quest – brings out both the willingly optimistic and the militant (not military!) aspects of Koechlin’s personality.

Once again, the archives from the Bibliothèque nationale de France are a precious help to make out the genesis of the Quintet. The drafts and sketches range from May 2, 1917 to June 29, 1921. There are also short sketches from the scherzo that date back from 1908 and others from the finale that were drafted in 1911. Finally, the composer, always a perfectionist, reviewed the first movement in 1933, shortly before the premiere at the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts, on April 24, 1934, by pianist Paul Collaer and the Brussels Quartet (Henri Desclin, Theo ­Delvenne, F. van Schepdael, Léon Roy).

Although it does not seem to be so, performing the first movement requires great command. The interpreters are laid bare, unable to blind the listener with pyrotechnic flames and are confronted to a virtuosity of slowness. Through surprising composition devices, Koechlin manages to make the listener feel his own feelings. He uses the most minute nuances and adds numerous directions on the score, such as “quite far away”, “quite equal and with no hurry” or “in a hush”, in order to get his ideas across better. The harmonic sequences underscore the distressing stillness of waiting, especially during certain atonal sections whose chords are like as many grey nuances of a likely surrounding mist; an atmosphere that Olivier Messiaen will be sensitive to later on. The stillness of the eighth notes that are distilled throughout this first part like in one of Escher’s paintings, may even remind the listener of Ligeti’s Etudes. Koechlin was, indeed, quite aware of the absolute novelty of his Quintet. After this ghost-like movement, the scherzo is more akin to a realistic scene, since it seeks to depict in a musical way a military conflict. Thus, Koechlin’s music draws on the techniques of the symphonic poem. Without recourse to the multiple sound possibilities of an orchestra, the composer manages, with only five instruments, to put into music what the titles announce to the listeners. This is not, however, a description per se, and it would not be relevant to interpret the use of two tones, for instance, as symbolizing a confrontation between two sides. ­Koechlin leads these pages with a musical, and not a narrative, logic in mind, a fact confirmed by the intentional lack of argument. From the beginning of the movement, within four bars, the composer conjures up two elements that will give birth to the whole movement. A very short, out-of-tune flourish of sorts, played by the strings, comes before a series of fifths played by the piano – this being the second element. After many confrontations, clashes and collisions, the movement ends in a stunned silence. The motifs never recover their original forms, and the open fifths that wrap up the movement might stand for the open wound mentioned in the title. In “Consoling Nature…”, Koechlin ­contemplates and meditates. Like sunshine permeating the trees’ leaves, the harmonic colors keep changing. These few pages of music, composed with a great know-how, radiate an unfeigned ­naïveté, within this science of the still time that is so characteristic of the French ­composer. The final movement starts with a bell explosion played by the piano. The strings prolong the religious touch by responding with a counterpoint that imitates the stern church style. After an altered repetition, the whole central section deploys long melodies on triple time, just as in the ­Pastoral Symphony, with an unfettered pantheism of sorts. As a possible reflection of the composer’s ecumenical views, the explosive final peroration combines its joyful tunes with the bell motif and the church polyphony of the beginning of the movement.

With this work, as with many of his scores, Koechlin manages to compose rigorously structured music that radiates a fresh impression of improvisation. It is a demanding work, but also, as it turns out, a unique musical experience that can only enlighten the souls of those who do not fall for impatience, a feeling that is the exact opposite of Charles Koechlin’s thought.

Ludovic Florin
Translation: Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia and Alexandre Escorcia

The Press covers it !

« Le Quintette avec piano, composé entre 1917 et 1921 mais créé tardivement en 1934, est à juste titre regardé comme un chef-d'oeuvre parmi les plus singuliers de la musique de chambre du XXe siècle. Que le présent enregistrement ne soit pas le premier, comme prétendu dans la notice, mais au moins le deuxième (après celui de Thierry Rosbach chez Cybelia), ne doit pas contrarier les admirateurs de cette musique exigeante. Koechlin n'écrivait pas pour les gens pressés, et le bonheur qu'il dispense est de ceux qui se méritent. On ne suivra pas forcément les commentaires qui accordent une place démesurée à l'influence des horreurs de la Première Guerre mondiale sur cet Opus 80. Les titres de ses quatre mouvements (L'Attente obscure de ce qui sera, L'Assaut de l'ennemi, La Nature consolatrice, La Joie) s'en font certes l'écho, mais la musique pure l'emporte à l'évidence sur on ne sait quelles intentions descriptives. On en retiendra successivement le climat initial de nuit transfigurée aux franges de l'atonalité, le scherzo martelé par un piano en phase avec les stridences des cordes, la méditation naïve dilatée par les quintes superposées, l'exultation finale d'une joie salvatrice. Audaces harmoniques, ferveur lyrique, prégnance de la spiritualité soulèvent une partition littéralement inouïe. Du moins à ce qu'en laissent deviner les musiciens du Philharmonique de Radio France réunis autour de Sarah Lavaud, en un quatuor souvent trop timide et flou. Et mieux à son affaire dans l'Opus 72, créé par les Pro Arte en 1924, mélange d'archaïsmes délicats et de traits canailles, de transparence post-fauréenne et de verve néobaroque. »

Diapason, Décembre 2009, Jean Cabourg

« The disc is carried by the commitment of the pianist, Sarah Lavaud, an ardent, young (27 years old) ambassadress for the re-evaluation of the works of Charles Koechlin. The sincerity of intention and the evident subtlety of the musicians at work reveal the French composer’s involved, enchanting universe without misrepresenting it. This superb first disc is a milestone in our discovery of Koechlin. A bearded dreamer, who assuaged his ecstasy... in music, was also a contemplative, rich in his inner world, but just as able to involve himself in real life: a communist and founder of the Société Musicale Indépendante, Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) gradually established himself as one of the most convinced personalities in France: his highly personal writing awakens the spirit/mind for a conscience multiplied tenfold, an acute vision on the world and Man. Humanistic and generous, Koechlin astonishes, captivates and grips the listener with a profound sense of the radiant sensibility that interferes directly to the heart. Therein lies his paradox, stemming from music that is apparently contemplative and which, in fine, greatly moves the spirit in a formative experience. The man was profoundly marked by the barbarity of war (First World War), its ignoble slaughter, which is a transgression against the humanist conscience, which we have mentioned. The Third Quartet gives concrete expression to the urgent need to proclaim this heart-rending trauma, especially in the Scherzo, a convulsive peak, flanked by episodes that are more distanced and intimate, indeed secretive, which close up in renunciation or even serenity, on a wound accepted forever, rich in its information. Quickly given its first performance in Mulhouse in 1924, the work dazzles with its free form, which is simultaneously straightforward, expressive and austere, almost bald. Here we again find this supple counterpoint of lines that sing by themselves and of which Koechlin, a passionate admirer of Gregorian chant, was particularly fond. The Scherzo is obviously the central piece in this denunciation, which is expressed openly, without mask or measure and even with a sardonic, sarcastic acidity prefiguring the acerbic barbs of Shostakovich: the performers respect the composer’s markings, quoting trumpets and cymbals, which evoke the Grim Reaper and the loathsome machine grinding out cannon fodder. This bitterness and violence are hardly calmed by the C major that opens the following Adagio. Just as Richard Strauss and his Metamorphosen express a feeling of the end of the world and, above all, the end of civilisation, following the annihilation by bombs and fighting of Second World War, Koechlin, in his Piano Quintet, Op.80, offers a similar experience: the radical situation of a witness to the ignominy whose music produces this cathartic, awaited and hoped-for liberation, the source of a pacifying serenity. Even though Koechlin was declared unfit for service due to the tuberculosis that he was diagnosed with c.1880, the composer experienced the upheavals of war in his flesh, and few works of music have been as committed by their subject. Our musicians have clearly understood this: refinement of accents, scrupulous concern for the crepuscular, meditative atmospheres, a swaying between the critical desire of estrangement and this direct, expressionistic cry; an expression of the feeling of helplessness and gnawing anxiety, which finally dissipates in a triumphant finale, luminous and even dance-like (imbued with a powerful, re-creative ‘joy’)—did Koechlin, in spite of his painful compassion, remain an eternal optimist?—are so many contributions, which, by the richness of the interpretative gesture, reveal every facet of the writing, first performed in Brussels in 1934. The suspended slowness (first movement) concretely expresses the destitution and humility of the beings sacrificed to horror, their anguished wait towards a dawn of barbarous, bloody lightning. Long phrases stretched to breathlessness, stifled visions in a thick, asphyxiating fog: the instrumentalists’ quality goes to the heart of one of the composer’s most innovative, most poetic tableaux: languor, exhaustion, the wearing-out of vital forces... The horror becomes even more concrete in the second movement, a scherzo plunged into the centre of the onslaughts, which denounces the open wounds (as is further underscored by the title of the episode: ‘The wound’. The same floating stretching of the andante, but enrobed in a prophetic colour, now entitled ‘Consoling Nature’... Here is the distanced Koechlin, tender and even lyrical, whose music comforts, rocks and enchants. The disc is carried by the commitment of the pianist, Sarah Lavaud, an ardent, young (27 years old) ambassadress for the re-evaluation of the works of Charles Koechlin. The sincerity of intention and the evident subtlety of the musicians at work (the very convincing pianist is surrounded by the four women of the Antigone Quartet) reveal the French composer’s involved, enchanting universe without misrepresenting it. At its source, the creators of the Groupe du Six, and Messiaen, blossom... That just shows the value of his musical heritage. This superb first disc is a milestone in our discovery of Koechlin, poet and prophet, haunted visionary and clairvoyant enchanter. », 27 septembre 2009, Lucas Irom


CD produced with the support of Mécenat Musical Société Générale and the Fondation Jean-Luc Lagardère.