Koechlin’s Viola Sonata, a central work, is elusive for performers and listeners alike. A 1976 archival recording by A. Facheux & M. M. Petit, viola and piano respectively (nla Skarbo SK3924), featured general cluelessness beset by small gaffes. A currently available issue from Michel Michalakakos and Martine Gagnepain (Skarbo DSK 1985) manages to be punctiliously, professionally cautious. The revealing foil for the present offering is a, relatively speaking, taut account by Christoph Schiller, partnered by Christoph Keller (nla Accord 201092) from 1990—if long gone nevertheless de rigueur for Koechlin mavens for its inclusion of his chamber-ensemble arrangement of the piano cycle Paysages et marines. Absent close listening one may remain, oneself, clueless—apart from the nightmarish Scherzo, this is not music to knock your socks off, though it yields considerable expressive punch on deepening acquaintance; which is emphatically not the same as becoming plausible with repetition; Koechlin has compelling things to say about life’s vicissitudes and precariousness, though he eschews the doleful heroics in which such matters are usually cast. On an initial comparison, one may well prefer the Schiller/Keller performance for straightforward getting on with it and spooking up the Scherzo with pointed flair, though those estimable virtues may seem crude, obvious, or forced as the Roger Benedict/Timothy Young unfolding settles on the ear: Koechlin’s fastidious avoidance of cliché is met by Benedict and Young with complementary finesse. From the berceuse-like opening measures, where Schiller and Keller awaken Koechlin’s reverie with matter-of-fact élan, Benedict and Young invest every phrase with expressive import so that harmonic shifts and the second theme’s entrance have the force of a deepening revelation. Chez Schiller and Keller, the Scherzo reverberates with shrieks and wails, where Benedict and Young project the disquieting aura of confronting barely repressed hysteria—both are effective. Through the Andante and the cyclic Final these approaches are magnified, Schiller and Keller implying that the sonata must be saved from longueurs by propulsive emphasis, where Benedict and Young evince a crooning faith in the composer to mean what he says—that it is worth saying—and attend to it expressively.
Playing a little over eight minutes, the Four Small Pieces for Viola, Horn, and Piano, composed between 1896 and 1906, demonstrate that Koechlin, had he wished, could have become a popular dispenser of trifles with the immediate and beguiling charm of Fauré’s occasional confections for violin and piano. Following the esoteric Viola Sonata, they are a gratifying surprise.
Three of the four Jongen pieces may be disc premieres. The single comparison for the Introduction et Danse, with Roger Chase and Michiko Otaki (Naxos 8.572293), confirms Benedict and Young’s deft touch and divination heard against a reading of once-over facelessness. But even Benedict and Young cannot save the composer from himself. Whether it’s the nearly 10 minutes of the Concertino, or the 4:40 of the Andante espressivo, one is struck by the lift and promise of splendid ideas only to hear the working out, or development, sag into sequences and wearisome commonplaces—inspiration one-upped by professional compositional tropes, so to speak, or the triumph of that which can be taught over that which can’t. Turning to Jongen’s best-known and most often recorded piece, the Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra, one recalls how one’s initial enthusiasm dwindled in proportion to the length of the movements. The conviction of inevitability that drives many less technically accomplished works to command broad appeal is, on this showing, lacking. In any case, Benedict and Young have presented Jongen in a most favoring light and thereby made a genuine contribution.
Made in China, Melba’s deluxe production—cardboard sleeve, thick glossy paper, large type, the artists’ smiling photos—is attractively welcoming, though program notes by one Ivan March wear the air of having been worked up at haphazard. Koechlin’s champion at Belgian Radio, Paul Collaer, is identified as “Paul Collier.” Of the Viola Sonata’s Final, March writes, “It seems likely that Koechlin intended this as a threnody for Milhaud, the loss of his close friend summoning up music that reveals a great depth of expressive feeling to bring this wistful tribute to an elegiac close.” Milhaud (1892–1974), to whom the work is dedicated, took the viola part, with Jeanne Herscher-Clément on piano, at the work’s premiere, May 27, 1915. As this otherwise excellent album wins fans for Koechlin, March’s piling up of shopworn adjectives with misinformation must introduce and spur confusion. It will be interesting in years to come to see how often this howler is repeated. It calls to mind Ezra Pound’s mot, “It is not arsenic in bottle and labeled that is dangerous, but arsenic in good soup.”
Sound is close, warm, and detailed. Enthusiastically recommended. Adrian Corleonis