Belle Époque

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International

Recent years have seen a growth – or more accurately a widening – in the appreciation of Reynaldo Hahn’s music. For a long time after his death he was known primarily in terms of his songs, operettas and operas. More recently other areas of his work have attracted attention – such as his concertos for violin and piano, and chamber works, such as his piano quartet and quintet. Now another area of his oeuvre – his compositions for two pianists, at one or two pianos – is the subject of an excellent survey issued by the Australian label Melba, played by indefatigable Australian-born Leslie Howard and the fine Italian pianist Mattia Ometto.

We tend to think of Hahn as primarily a musician of the Parisian salons at the close of the Nineteenth Century – and that impression is reinforced by some aspects of the way, in which this 2-CD set is presented. The back cover of the accompanying booklet carries a caricature by Georges Goursat, ‘Une Soirée Musicale chez Mme Lemaire’ showing Hahn at the piano, accompanying a singer, with “Mme Madelaine Lemaire observing”. Though the booklet provides no information on Mme Lemaire (1845-1928), it is worth knowing that she was a French painter, particularly famous for her images of flowers. Indeed the front cover of the booklet carries a reproduction of one of her paintings – not of violets or roses, but a kind of soft-porn female nude on a bed, entitled Le Sommeil de Manon. Why, one wonders, is this relatively minor artist given such a prominent role here? Because, I suspect, she did something very important for Hahn (again this is not mentioned in the booklet); in May of 1894 she introduced Hahn to Marcel Proust; the two became close friends (and were probably lovers for some time). Some very interesting correspondence survives.

Yet it is, I think, misleading (insofar as it involves a limiting view of the man) to associate Hahn so ‘exclusively’ with the music of the Parisian salons. He was, after all, equally at home in the concert hall and the opera house.

From the age of 11 Hahn studied at the Paris Conservatoire. He was a pupil of Massenet (with whom his work shares an elegant lyricism). As a conductor (he worked at the Opéra in Paris), Hahn gained a considerable reputation as an interpreter of Mozart, whose works he conducted at the Salzburg Festival on a number of occasions. He much admired Haydn, and had a particular enthusiasm for Schumann. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the latter is often echoed in Hahn’s own writing for the piano.

As a composer Hahn is not really an innovator; he is an eclectic synthesizer, who was yet able to invest his work with an attractive freshness of its own. As well as the names already mentioned, Fauré and Mendelssohn also had parts to play in the creation of Hahn’s music. Hahn’s craftsmanship is well-nigh perfect. In the words of Adolph Piriou he “has a complete knowledge of the technique of his art. His writing is flexible and light, his harmony clear and never over-loaded with unnecessary detail, and he has an abundant and easy flow of melody” (Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, 1929, Vol. I, p.506).

These virtues are plentifully evident in the music played by Howard and Ometto, which has the kind of charm commonly associated with Hahn, but also a power to evoke emotions and ideas not always assumed to be part of what his music does. I think his association with Proust is something of a key to much of what is best in Hahn. Proust, of course, was one of the greatest of all writers to deal with the ways in which human memory works, with how memories can be consciously retrieved or, perhaps more often, unconsciously triggered. It is worth bearing in mind some of the things Proust said about memory when listening to Hahn: “the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment”, “reality takes shape in the memory alone”, “We exist only by virtue of what we possess, we possess only what is really present to us, and many of our memories, our moods, our ideas sail away on a voyage of their own until they are lost to sight! Then we can no longer take them into account in the total which is our personality. But they know of secret paths by which to return to us.”

Like so much in his friend’s writings, Hahn’s music is often concerned with the complex interplay (one might say the ‘inseparability’) of memory, imagination and reality; of self and memory; the inner and outer worlds, past, present and future (On the recording under discussion this seems to me particularly true of Le ruban denoué and Pour bercer un convalescent). To ‘hear’ this in Hahn one has to listen beyond the music’s wit and charm and not be distracted by such things to the extent that one settles for hearing only such dimensions of the music. The hints are there in Hahn’s titles, such as, on the first disc alone, ‘Les soirs d’Albi’ [The evenings of Albi], ‘Souvenir … avenir’ [Memory … future], ‘Le demi-sommeil embaumé’ [The embalmed half-sleep] or ‘L’anneau perdu’ [The lost ring]. Or the title of the finest work on these discs, the sequence of 12 ‘Valses â deux pianos’, Le ruban denoué [The ribbon untied], suggestive perhaps of a ribbon, holding together a collection of love letters now untied or, maybe, a ribbon whose untying would loosen (or did loosen!) an item of clothing. Take the poetic suggestiveness of Hahn’s titles seriously (but never solemnly!) and one is alerted to the music’s depths, to its concern with some of the issues alluded to at the beginning of this paragraph.

Howard and Ometto play these pieces as well as one could hope to hear them played. They invest the lovely ‘Souvenir … avenir’ and ‘Danse de l’amour et du chagrin’ with just the right degree of gravity, without ever over-freighting it. They spin out the glorious melody of ‘Le seul amour’ with infinite elegance; they are remembered tenderness itself in ‘Les baisers’. They bring opposites into perfect balance in the ‘Danse de l’amour et du chagrin’. They play the whole of Le ruban denoué and Pour bercer un convalescent with a kind of implicit consciousness that these works were written under the shadow of War (the works forming Le ruban denoué seem actually to have been conceived on the Western Front). The Berceuses pour piano à quatre mains on Disc 2 are full of visions (memories?) of childhood evoked in writing of deceptive simplicity, written and played with a kind of refined innocence.

The whole makes a memorable and often beautiful collection, which, musically-speaking, strikes deeper than one might expect. Those who have discovered Hahn’s chamber music will surely want to hear these discs. But I suspect many others would also find great pleasure in it.