CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet.

CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartetltzhak Perlman, violin; Jorge Bolet, piano; Juilliard String Quartet. CBS MASTERWORKS IM-37814 (digital), produced by Steven Epstein.

With the appearance of its second digital recording, I suppose that the Chausson Concert can no longer be considered a “neglected” masterpiece. By now it has been recorded by quite a few celebrated artists, the most recent of whom was Lorin Maazel, as violin soloist on a Telarc release also featuring lsraela Margalit as pianist, with the Cleveland Orchestra Quartet. That was a good performance—up to a point—and so is this new CBS rendition—in fact, the two are not all that different from each other. True, Perlman’s violin playing is smooth and lustrous, while Maazel’s is a little shaky; and Bolet’s playing is a bit flaccid, while Mar­galit’s is more incisive. On the whole, the Perlman performance is pervasively mellow, while Maazel’s interpretation depends more on contrasts of mood and tempo. Yet these differ­ences are very minor in degree. In actuality, the performances share much more in common: They are both very romantic and, at times, allow their notion of what “romantic” playing is to lead them away from the natural syntax of the music—what might be called interpretive dogma. Both performances also strive for a consistently velvety sound and a mood of genteel languor. This is particularly true of the new Perlman performance; the Maazel does have its moments of agitation and excitement. Both quartets are smoothly polished and both re­cordings offer clear, sumptuous sonic splendor.

I am pleased that today’s leading musicians are turning their attention to a work that I have long regarded as one of the masterpieces of 19th-century chamber music. But what is unsatisfactory about Perlman’s rendition especially is symptomatic of today’s “superstar” performers and their mass-market approach to classical music: polished virtuosity narcissistically oblivious to the music it is supposed to serve. Unlike his counterpart of yesterday, whose coarseness and vulgarity was usually blatantly obvious, today’s more sophisticated brand of virtuoso has learned to affect “tonal beauty,” to suggest “romantic emotion” with slow tempos, and to avoid the tackiness of excessive rubato. But despite the veneer of refinement, it’s still interpretation by numbers, dead musicianship, devoid of insight, embalmed to simulate the real thing. It is what a friend of mine calls “the Bjorn Borg approach to music-making”; you can hear it when Pavarotti sings, when Mehta conducts, and you can hear it when Perlman plays, to name just a few of many examples.

As I opined at some length in my review of the Telarc recording (Fanfare IV:2, pp. 92-3), Chausson’s Concert is an eloquent work of intense emotion and an important precursor of impressionism. Its considerable significance is not at all conveyed by this CBS release. (For evidence of what is missing, listen to the now-defunct Mace recording, MCS-9074, that fea­tured John Corigliano, Sr., and Ralph Votapek.) In listening to this disc and reading the jack­et, I wondered that it was chosen for recording at all. In his typically simplistic annotation, Peter Eliot Stone offers nothing to entice the prospective purchaser to consider this music—or to enhance the understanding of the listener, simply reiterating conventional clichés about Chausson that reveal little familiarity with his unique qualities or his true place in the evolution of French music. Perlman, the violinistic equivalent of “just another pretty face,” goes through the piece without losing his smile, while Bolet yawns and tries to stay awake. Is this what they mean by “world-class musicianship? 

CHAUSSON: Trio in G minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Pièce for Cello and Piano. Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet.

CHAUSSON: Trio in G minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Pièce for Cello and Piano. Les Musiciens (Regis Pasquier, violin; Roland Pidoux, cello; Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano). HAR­MONIA MUNDI (France) HMC-1115, produced by Michel Bernard.

CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String QuartetSylvia Rosenberg, violin; Maria Luisa Faini, piano; Chester String Quartet. PANTHEON PFN-2101, produced by John Santuccio.

CHAUSSON: Quartet in A for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano.Les Musiciens (Regis Pasquier, violin; Bruno Pasquier, viola; Roland Pidoux, cello; Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano). HARMONIA MUNDI (France) HM-1116, produced by Michel Bernard.

Ernest Chausson’s representation on records is improved significantly with these new re­leases highlighting three of his four major chamber works. (The fourth, a String Quartet in C minor, left incomplete at the time of his fatal bicycle accident, may be heard on Musical Heri­tage Society 1351Z.) Ginette Keller, annotator of the Harmonia Mundi discs, writes, “The name of Ernest Chausson is almost forgotten today; apart from the famous Poème for violin and orchestra, what music is known by this composer . . . ?” I suppose it depends on how we conceive of the collective public by whom one is either recognized or ignored, but it seems to me that during the past several years Chausson’s time has really arrived. If one considers the several fine recordings of the Concert in D, the excellent recordings of the Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer, with the extraordinary Jessye Norman disc heading the list (Erato NUM-75059; see Fanfare VII:3, pp. 163-4), the long-awaited complete recording of the opera Le Roi Arthus (MRF 179-S; see Fanfare VI:2, pp, 119-20), together with these three new releases, it appears that Chausson has finally shed the restrictive mantle of Franck epigone, having become acknowledged as a distinctive artist in his own right.

In previous reviews I have cited Chausson as the most potent creative figure in French late Romanticism, an important precursor of and influence on Debussy, a student of Franck who achieved a refinement and elegance far beyond that of the Belgian master, yet who was never content with the facile triviality or labored academicism that satisfied most of his compatriots. Chausson’s output was relatively small (less than 40 works), owing to a late start in music (he first earned a law degree), slow and highly self-critical work habits, and premature death at the age of 44. Yet few of these works stray from the standards of elevated artistic content and me­ticulous workmanship that Chausson defined for himself. It is therefore gratifying to find his work accorded the attention and respect that it truly deserves.

The piano trio is an early work, composed in 1881, while Chausson was still a Franck stu­dent. Here the influence of the elder composer is omnipresent—along with that of Brahms in the scherzo, and even of Tristan—thoughnot to the point of completely obscuring the identity of the young composer. One must also concede that the rhetoric is overwrought at times, routine at others, quite in the manner of Franck. Yet while the trio lacks the individuality and refinement of the mature works, its sense of emotional commitment is powerful, its thematic material is of high quality, and its developmental craftsmanship is strong, making it an auspicious work certain to reward the interest of those concerned with Chausson and his time.

The performance, by an ensemble associated with Radio France and known as Les Musiciens, is excellent. They present the trio on a grand scale, broadly paced and dramatically con­toured, lending it an imposing legitimacy that performances of neglected works are notorious for lacking. There have been several previous recordings of this work. The best known to me is a Dutch disc (Orpheon BP-201) released during the late 1970s, featuring the Guarneri Trio. That was a fine, vigorous performance, no less impressive than this new one.

The disc also contains the eight-minute Pièce for cello and piano, composed in 1897. It is a lovely elegy, without the morbidity to which Chausson was so often prone. Despite its outward simplicity, it reveals a sophistication in rhythm and texture missing from the earlier—if more ambitious—trio. In the Pièce, however, the exposed cello playing of Roland Pidoux re­veals a rather raw, sinewy tone quality.

The Concert in D for violin, piano, and string quartet appeared some 10 years after the trio and is a work of Chausson’s artistic maturity, although he is said to have remarked, “an­other failure,” upon its completion. Some time later, however, no less than Kaikhosru Sorabji termed it “one of the most original and beautiful chamber works of modern times.” I concur wholeheartedly with Sorabji’s high regard for the piece, although today’s listener will certainly not find anything “modern” in it, rooted as it is in an aesthetic realm that might be termed pre-impressionistic. Musicians seem finally to be discovering this work, a moving personal state­ment by a major artist, which gives full vent to a profound inner despair within a language of elegant urbanity resembling art nouveau. In the tension between the yearning for intimate con­fession and the need to maintain composure, one finds a parallel with the psychological dynamic of someone as apparently different as Sir Edward Elgar.

The tremendous appeal of this work has led to several recordings of late, the most recent of which was an awfully shallow reading featuring Itzhak Perlman, Jorge Bolet, and the Juil­liard Quartet (CBS IM-37814; see Fanfare VII:2, pp. 201-2). This new Pantheon recording, with Sylvia Rosenberg, Maria Luisa Faini, and the Chester Quartet (apparently from the East­man School of Music), is excellent, without the preciousness and fastidiousness that have un­dermined other versions. These performers are not afraid of (or oblivious to) the powerful emotions that motivate the work. Only the last movement seems to sag somewhat, due to the duress of continually active textural figurations. Less expensive than the formidable digital version with Lorin Maazel, Israela Margalit, and the Cleveland Orchestra String Quartet (Telarc DG-10046; see Fanfare IV:2, pp. 92-3), this analog recording presents a fine alternative, al­though Maazel and company display somewhat more finesse, especially in the last movement.

Chausson completed his piano quartet in 1897, six years after the Concert, and it reflects something of a shift in focus, from emotional expression to textural variety. Therefore an em­phasis on subtle nuances of tone color is not as dangerous as when applied to the Concert. The work is clearly recognizable as Chausson’s, with its pentatonic themes, melancholy moods, and richly billowing textures. But it is a bit less subjective, less filled with pathos. Indeed it is one of Chausson’s few major works not conceived in a state of protracted hopelessness; some com­mentators consider it his masterpiece.

The only other fairly recent recording of the work to circulate in this country is an English performance from about 1970 featuring the Richards Quartet (L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL-316). That one was good, but a bit lacking in conviction. This new performance by Les Musiciens exhibits exquisite tonal refinement, underlining the quartet’s aesthetic affinity with the contemporaneous works of Debussy. It is an expansive reading, making no attempt to hurry through what is quite a leisurely piece. Richly recorded, the performance luxuriates in its own sensuousness. Al­though I might prefer a more tangible sense of progression, this is an excellent rendition that Chausson enthusiasts will not want to miss.

At this point, these three discs, along with the aforementioned Jessye Norman recording, the Le Roi Arthur set, and a version each of the Symphony in Br and the violin Poème, can serve as an essential, representative discography of one of the leading figures in French music of the 19th century.

CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies.

CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies. Jessye Norman, soprano; Monte Carlo Philharmonic String Quartet; Michel Dalberto, piano; Philhar­monic Orchestra of Monte Carlo conducted by Armin Jordan. ERATO NUM-75059 (digital), produced by Pierre Lavoix.

Ernest Chausson’s small but distinguished output is being explored increasingly by today’s celebrated performers. Not long ago, he was viewed as a fastidious bourgeois epigone of Franck, and one whose place in the repertoire was held only by the Poème for violin and or­chestra, a piece often dismissed as bloated salon sentimentality. However, as Harry Halbreich observes in his astute liner notes, Chausson is recognized today as one of the most important figures in French Romanticism, not only as a stylistic link between Franck and Debussy, one might add, but also as the possessor of an individual creative personality that reveals a profound inner conflict between an intensely emotional nature and a patrician sense of modesty. Indeed, the violin Poème itself is a masterpiece of elegiac dignity, eloquently presenting the aesthetic core of Chausson’s art (if somewhat trivialized by overexposure, placement in trite program contexts, and shallow performances).

One of the major compositions of Chausson to gain attention during the past several years is the Poème de l’amour et de la mer, a two-part vocal work lasting about half an hour. Com­pleted in 1892, the Poème describes the prototypical summer romance—its momentary taste of ecstasy, which passes and cannot be rekindled—from the familiar fin de siecle pose of retro­spective melancholia. It is a testament to Chausson’s acute artistry that this time-worn conceit is conveyed with such touching conviction. A strong melodic contour soars through the bil­lowing waves of chromaticism, providing the focus and stability often missing from lesser works of this kind.

In evaluating this new recording, which features soprano Jessye Norman with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo, one calls for comparison several available alternatives, all ex­tremely good (see Fanfare 11:2, pp. 43-44). One might summarize their qualities as follows: The performance by Victoria de los Angeles (Angel S-36897) is warm, limpid, and intimately projected, but perhaps insufficiently varied in tone color; the one by Montserrat Caballé (Peters PLE 021) is equally warm, but richer and more powerful, yet somewhat short on subtlety and nuance; Janet Baker’s (Angel S-37401) displays her unerring intelligence, sensitivity to nuance, and expression of textual meaning, but reveals the shortage of sheer sensuous power and rich­ness in her voice—a weakness that becomes particularly noticeable in a work like this, and in company like this. However, after listening to Jessye Norman’s recording, I must conclude that she simply takes all prizes. Displaying a gorgeous sound, magnificent artistry, a broad range of color and expression, as well as sensitivity to text, she offers the best performance of this work that I have ever heard. And, surprisingly enough, the orchestra, under Armin Jordan’s sensitive direction, provides a flexible, richly balanced accompaniment that rivals even that of the London Symphony on the Baker disc.

In addition to this splendid performance, the disc also contains the only recording currently available in the U.S. of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, a seven-minute song accompanied by piano quintet. One of the composer’s last works, it again depicts a situation of torrid love abruptly terminated, but expressed now with an increased concentration of poignant in­tensity, placing it among the composer’s three or four greatest compositions, along with the Concert in D and the opera Le Roi Arthus (now available on MRF 179-S). Janet Baker’s erstwhile recording of Chanson perpétuelle (L’Oiseau-Lyre S-298) was awfully close to perfection, partly because its greater demands for verbal nuance and subtlety of expression in an intimate context were ideally suited to her gifts, so that I find it impossible to prefer any performance to that one. But Jessye Norman’s new rendition is gorgeous on its own terms (and Baker’s is no longer available in this country).

The additional inclusion of five melodies from Chausson’s Op. 2 group is nice, although these early songs are among his weakest; later melodies are more interesting. Sound quality of this Erato disc does full justice to the opulence of the music and the magnificence of the per­formances.