Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare (USA)

Charles Kœchlin (1867–1950), a Parisian who flirted with an engineering career early in life due mainly to the wishes of his family, came of age under the influence of Fauré, whose Pelléas et Mélisande suite he orchestrated in 1898, and assisted the elder legend often in his work. His early life was a bit wayward in terms of employment, and he never seemed to be able to hold down permanent work, increasingly necessary after the First World War broke out. He engaged in odd freelance work and only settled down to teach counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum for four years beginning in 1935. There were also four trips to America between 1918 and 1937 with mixed results; La Joie paienne was entered into the Hollywood Bowl Competition and won best prize for composition, but other successes were not as easily garnered, and generally speaking, despite living to a ripe age of 83, he never wrote music that caught on the way some of his early classmates’ (Enescu, Hahn, Schmitt) did.

His music is steeped in the Baroque, saturated with the spirit of the Impressionists, and even more immersed in modality than those classmates’ were. At times the music seems to drone on with open fourths and fifths, and elsewhere skirts the borders of atonalism. His was a manic prolificacy that covered all genres except perhaps opera. He wrote for large forces at a time when such ensembles were struggling to obtain new scores, and is a major contributor to the tone poem. Chamber music adorns his catalog for many instruments. His Viola Sonata is a major work, a half-hour in length, and one that represents the composer in fairest fashion for those wanting to get to know this aspect of his creative abilities. Dedicated to Milhaud, the piece is quiet and reflective, darkly imaginative with some unusual scordatura effects. One even hears Messiaen hovering around the accompaniment in the Andante, willful, static, and quite beautiful.

The Four Small Pieces was composed separately over a period of 10 years, grippingly melodic, and scored with the surprise addition of a horn to the viola and piano. The horn’s entrance is saved for special moments and indeed is most eye-opening when listening to the skillful way that Kœchlin integrates its timbre with the other two instruments in these lighter yet still engaging miniatures.

Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (1873–1953) was admitted to the Liège Conservatory at the age of seven, and stayed there for 16 years! He was an exceptionally serious student and composer, early on demonstrating ability for organ composition. Though he spent the war in Britain, he returned as soon as possible to his native land and died there. His Symphonie Concertante of 1926 establishes him today as a composer of no little skill; it’s one of the finest organ-and-orchestra works ever written, but his fame extends little beyond that. Which is precisely why this album is so welcome, giving us four works of exquisite caliber that should help to present him in a different light. His is a more urbanite style than Koechlin, hinted at in passages that resemble Saint-Saëns and certainly draw on the lyrical aspects of composers like Ravel while bathing in the light of later Romanticism. It is this style and its eventual dwindling that caused Jongen to be eclipsed near the end of his life, an event that he himself hastened in complaining that his music was too behind the times, and withdrawing much of it. Each of these works is an essential tone poem absent program, and their evocative and closely knit musical logical make for gratifying listening.

Englishman Roger Benedict is principal viola of the Sydney Opera, and a noted teacher whose students populate orchestras all over the world. His tone is sweet and bold, his assurance in these works unquestioned. Australian pianist Timothy Young has the full measure of the French style in these pieces, partnering with grace and sophistication. Surely Want List quality by any reckoning. Steven E. Ritter