Sunday, November 29, 2015

Chausson's "Poème": a gem of French Romanticism

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), around 1895

Ginette Neveu, violin

David Oistrakh, violin

Zino Francescatti, violin

by Ken

Now that, I dare say, is one gorgeous tune, and a tune gorgeously suited to the solo violin. (One feature worth noting in the tune's formal notation: The accented beats the ear hears hardly ever occur on the downbeats where one would expect them. What seems like such a simple, straightforward flowing melody actually isn't so simple or straightforward.)

As I mentioned last week, when we listened to Ravel's "funny music," the concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra Tzigane, it was actually its frequent disc-mate, Ernest Chausson's Poème for Violin and Orchestra, that actually got me thinking about the pieces, which were both included, with Zino Francescatti as soloist, on a CD in Sony's Leonard Bernstein Edition, filling out Lenny's 1961 New York Philharmonic recording of Berlioz's Harold in Italy (with William Lincer, the orchestra's principal violist from 1942 to 1972, as soloist).


The little group of relatively short showpieces for violin and orchestra which includes Chausson's Poème and Ravel's Tzigane (and, again, includes Saint-Saëns's Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, works that have often been clumped into discmates) seems to me among the happiest products of what we might call Franco-Belgian musical Romanticism (again, stretching to slip Tzigane under the rubric of Romanticism, which for me as a marked tendency toward the bilious. (France had already had its great Romantic composer in Hector Berlioz, but as often happens with the French and their music, they didn't know it.)

Wikipedia provides this "Background":
Poème was written in response to a request from Eugène Ysaÿe for a violin concerto. Chausson felt unequal to the task of a concerto, writing to Ysaÿe: "I hardly know where to begin with a concerto, which is a huge undertaking, the devil's own task. But I can cope with a shorter work. It will be in very free form with several passages in which the violin plays alone."

It was commenced in April 1896 and finished on 29 June, and was written while Chausson was holidaying in Florence, Italy.

He wrote three different versions of Poème: with orchestra; with piano accompaniment (later rewritten by other hands); and a recently discovered version for violin, string quartet and piano, a companion to his Concert in D for piano, violin and string quartet, Op. 21 (1892). The solo violin parts of these versions are identical except for one minor detail.

The work is notionally in the key of E-flat, and lasts about 16 minutes. It was dedicated to Ysaÿe, who gave its early performances.
Ysaÿe was the soloist of the premiere at the conservatory in Nancy in December 1896, the Paris premiere in April 1897, and the London premiere in June 1899, "a week after Chausson's untimely death," as Wikipedia pu†s it. (The composer was 44 when he died on June 10.)

The Wikipedia article, where you'll also find the history of the work's rejected earlier titles, says of the its "Structure":
It does not follow any formal model but is rhapsodic and moody, with rising and falling tensions and an advanced harmonic style. It strongly reflects the melancholy and introspection with which Chausson was imbued from an early age. (He once wrote to his godmother about his childhood: "I was sad without knowing why, but firmly convinced that I had the best reason in the world for it.")

Joseph Szigeti always believed "the typically Ysaÿean sinuous double-stop passages" in the exposition could not have been written without the inspiration -- or, indeed, the direct involvement -- of Ysaÿe himself. This was later confirmed by Ysaÿe, who acknowledged he wrote the double-stopping "over Chausson's framework."

CHAUSSON: Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25:
Lento e misterioso -- Molto animato -- Animato -- Poco lento --
Poco meno lento -- Allegro -- Tempo I -- Tranquillo

I'm not going to say much, or really anything, about the recordings, which were chosen principally on the ground that I happen to have them, but they represent a pretty classy bunch of fiddlers, with highly sympathetic conductors. I couldn't choose between Ginette Neveu's EMI studio recording and the live New York performance from several years later, so I've thrown in both. I was surprised to find that I don't seem to have David Oistrakh's RCA stereo recording with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, but I think the earlier Russian recording represents him just fine. I also don't seem to have Arthur Grumiaux's Philips stereo recording. For the record, the Milstein-Fistoulari EMI version is dubbed from LP.

Jascha Heifetz, violin; San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA, recorded Dec. 17, 1945

Ginette Neveu, violin; Philharmonia Orchestra, Issay Dobrowen, cond. EMI, recorded Aug. 16-18, 1946

Ginette Neveu, violin; New York Philharmonic, Charles Munch, cond. Live performance, Jan. 2, 1949

David Oistrakh, violin; USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, cond. Melodiya, recorded in the early 1950s

Nathan Milstein, violin; Philharmonia Orchestra, Anatole Fistoulari, cond. EMI, recorded June 1-4, 1963

Zino Francescatti, violin; New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Jan. 6, 1964

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