Belle Époque

Jim Harrington
American Record Guide

After 99 discs of Liszt from Leslie Howard, it is good to see his name and “complete works” that only occupy two discs. Granted, we’re looking at a rather limited and obscure group of pieces, but true to his musicological credentials, Howard has found a number of previously unrecorded works. I have no doubt that the contents of these discs are a complete as possible at the time of recording in 2017. I have seen a number of Reynaldo Hahn (1847-1947) recordings in recent years and especially enjoyed the 4CD set of his complete solo piano works by Cristina Ariagno (Concerto 2015, J/A 2013). His ability to compose music for two pianists seems just as idiomatic and natural as his two-hand works, but it requires two suave and sophisticated musicians thinking and executing as one with luxury, elegance and refinement. And that is exactly what we have here.

Hahn was born in Caracas, Venezuela and moved to Paris in 1877 but did not become a French citizen until 1909. He was a prolific composer: 14 ballets, 17 operas, incidental music for 25 plays; concertos for piano, violin, cello; much chamber music, and as much piano music as Debussy. He was also a conductor, music critic, theatre director and salon singer. He is best known as a composer of songs. He began composing at age 8, was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at 10, and wrote his two most famous songs by the age of 15 (‘Si mes vers avaient des ailes’ and ‘L’heure exquise’). He was adored in the most exclusive salons in Paris.

Disc 1 is on two pianos, and Disc 2 is piano duet (on one). His largest and most important work in this genre is Le Ruban Dénoué (The Untied Ribbon), 12 Waltzes for two pianos (1915). 10 of them are about 2 or 3 minutes long and the other two are over 7. Each waltz has an evocative title. Although they sound more appropriate in French, here are a few English examples: Dance of Love and Chagrin, Evening Storm, The Embalming Half-Sleep, The Only Love.

Howard and Ometto perform these with panache in conjunction with balanced gusto and tenderness – it’s more than half an hour of music. The other two-piano works include a premiere recording of Hahn’s ‘Slow Scherzo’ (1891) and his ‘Melancholy Caprice’ (1897). The music simply continues to unfold in all its easy-listening glory. Always well constructed, each piece is enchanting, with quite natural and pleasing harmonies.

The piano duets include a set of seven Berceuses (1904), a couple of less interesting sets of variations and three preludes on Irish Themes. Perhaps the only thing missing here is the kind of full-blooded, passionate piano music we knew was present in Paris around the middle of the 1800s (Chopin, Liszt, Alkan). The prominent title of this release is Belle Époque and listening to it will transport you to that time of relaxed luxury in the salons of Paris.