I must admit, a disc of obscure 20th Century French chamber music isn’t normally the sort of thing to have me queuing outside the record store before opening time. That’s what makes this recording such an unexpected find … still, let’s start at the beginning. Composed between 1896 and 1940 by two close contemporaries, Belgian Joseph Jongen and Frenchman Charles Koechlin, the (by turns) stimulating, disturbing or simply lush music featured in these world premiere recordings confirms that the obscurity attained by both men is ill-deserved.
The disc opens with Koechlin’s Viola Sonata from 1915, a piece infused with the horror and pathos of a time of madness. It is an emotionally engaging journey through a surprisingly large and complex soundscape, the unpredictability of its twists and turns never allowing the listener to settle. The addition of a horn in Koechlin’s ‘Quatre Petites Pièces’ lends a deliciously mournful presence to these wistful, melodic cameos from the composer’s early maturity. The four (unconnected) incidental works by Jongen cover an even greater timespan, from 1900 to 1940, yet still manage to give the impression of a coherent whole. A melodist who found himself out of step with prevailing fashion, this is thoughtful, accessible music in a late romantic style – though, again, its frequent mood changes are always likely to lead it off in an unexpected direction.
Australian Roger Benedict has spent the last twenty years as Principal Viola of the Philharmonic Orchestra in London and, latterly, the Sydney Symphony. Compatriot Timothy Young is a highly credentialed pianist, and together they give a flawless account of these works, attracting glowing plaudits from the specialist press. Melba’s recording is of reference standard for its sheer presence and naturalness, while the quality of the artwork and packaging is beyond exceptional, making this a disc to cherish!