by Walter Simmons
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 Quartet. Sylvia 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.