Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2,
Suite Française. Overture for a Merry Tale
Emmanuel Villaume, cond; Slovenian PO
TIMPANI 1C1189 (61:38)
Every so often a release comes along that reminds listeners that a particular national repertory is not always so well known to us as we think. Not all beloved works cross the pond. This has a lot to do with immediacy and easily recognizable, iconic tunes. The symphonic works of Maurice
Emmanuel occupy a known position of respect in France. But like those of Magnard and D’Indy, they reveal their charms more slowly than the compositions of Franck, Ravel, or Debussy.
Two striking features of Emmanuel’s music are its exploration of modal scales, particularly the Lydian, and the adoption of an emphatic manner of marching, originating in Lalo and taking final form with Roussel. This results in music that at times sounds like Arnold Bax or Edmund Rubbra prefiguring Hindemith! But it works far better than it sounds. Emmanuel’s musical world is a gentle one, heartfelt without heartstrings, kaleidoscopic without craziness, exciting without bombast, and unified in that beautiful French manner that never confuses length with significance. It is transparent writing, characteristically shifting quickly and lightly in the winds, like Walton in a happy mood.
The gem here is the First Symphony, dating from 1918, a gentle memorial of death in war. A sweet four-note motif in the quiet introduction and at the very end gradually gets under your skin, and the “running”
theme of the first movement stays with one better than do similar moments in D’Indy’s Second Symphony, which it somewhat resembles. The slow movement reveals fine echoes of Chausson, and the finale seems to invent Hindemith’s way with bass drum thumps and snares a full 10 years before anything like it would be heard from him.
The detailed and scholarly notes accompanying the CD are a bit hopeful, though, in their admiration for the
comparing it to Ravel’s
Tombeau de Couperin
. The music evokes none of the moonlit zombieness that makes the Ravel so memorable. But it is very pleasant and contains moments that resemble Walton, Honegger, and Copland, which says something for cultural cross-fertilization, even in little-known music. The overture, like many comedy overtures, may be trying too hard. Lots of oompah on the tuba, and no worse than similar efforts by Bax and others. But I don’t think anyone ever laughs.
The Second Symphony really does sound remarkably like late Hindemith, though one begins to suspect Emmanuel got there before the German composer. But its claim to fame as “La Bretonne” is surely based on the zest and verve of its unforgettable finale. The simplest way to put it is to say that this movement is for all practical purposes a “bunny hop,” with a secondary melody so Sibelian it might have been penned by Howard Hanson. Not to be missed!
The members of the Slovenian Philharmonic play their hearts out and achieve a light sonority that feels lovely and authentically French. There exists a Keith Lockhart recording of the symphonies with a German orchestra, but Emmanuel Villaume’s effort here is by far the more idiomatic. Sound and performance could not be better!
FANFARE: Steven Kruger
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in A major, Op. 18 by Maurice Emmanuel
Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1919; France
Suite française by Maurice Emmanuel
Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra
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