Lee Passarella
Audiophile Audition (US)

Here is the music of two French-speaking contemporaries who wrote a great deal of music that could be called eclectic and who are both known, if known at all to music lovers, for a single piece of music. For French composer Charles Koechlin, that piece is Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), a series of tone poems written over the course of forty years that touches on most of the musical styles, from early Impressionism to serialism, which dominated the period of composition. So it’s not surprising to hear the influence of Impressionism in the Quatre Petites Pièces, written between 1896 and 1906, or to find that the ever-restless Koechlin had moved on to a more experimental phase in the Viola Sonata of 1912-15.

This is a remarkable work, rhythmically restless in spots and harmonically restless throughout. The movements have ambiguous tonal centers and feature extensive polytonality, creating—especially in the long (over twelve minutes), slow last movement—a mysterious, otherworldly quality. The piece was forward-looking enough to influence the dedicatee and first performer of the work, violist Darius Milhaud, in his polytonal compositions of the nineteen-teens. Interestingly, Koechlin thought he had gone too far in the Viola Sonata and in later compositions backed off its pervasive polytonality.

Compared to Koechlin, Belgian composer Joseph Jongen was more conservative though he, too, passed through various stages of musical influence from the Franckian chromaticism of his Andante Espressivo (1900) to the Impressionism of his Second String Quartet (1916) to a personal brand of neoclassicism that marks his most famous composition, the Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra (1926). This last, an audiophile showcase, has been recorded quite a bit while others of his fine works have languished. So it’s nice to have this recorded collection of pieces for viola and piano. Other than the earliest piece, the Andante Espressivo, they show the continuing influence of Impressionism in Jongen’s music (at least his chamber music), though the last of them, the Concertino, was written as late as 1940. They’re all attractive, well-crafted works even if they sound old-fashioned after Koechlin’s daring Viola Sonata.

The performances on this Melba CD are outstanding: forceful and commanding in Jongen’s Concertino and Allegro, stylishly playful in Koechlin’s Scherzo and Jongen’s Introduction et Danse, deeply affecting in the final movement of the Viola Sonata. Principal violist of the Sydney Symphony and former principal of London’s Philharmonia, Roger Benedict has a superbly focused, ringing tone and gets first-rate support from pianist Timothy Young and hornist Ben Jacks , who lends a hand in the colorfully scored Quatre Petites Pièces.

Melba’s recording, though close up, is airy as well, conveying a nice sense of the hall (Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne). It’s also very true...