Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trio. Piano Quartet
Teng Li (va)
ATMA 2651 (66:01)
Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu (1870–94) wrote enough music to fill nine CDs, which is quite an accomplishment considering that he died one day after turning 24. Even more surprising is that much of Lekeu’s music was written within the relatively short span of four years, between 1888 and 1892.
There’s nothing short-span, however, about a number of his major works. On a mid-1950s mono RCA LP (LM-2014), I have what is probably Lekeu’s best-known work, his violin sonata, performed by Yehudi Menuhin and Marcel Gazelle, a later recording than the violinist’s not-available-in-the-U.S. 1938 Naxos Historical recording of the sonata he made with sister Hepzibah, but available on Biddulph. Menuhin championed Lekeu, quite possibly because the sonata was commissioned by the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, with whom Menuhin studied briefly—very briefly, like one lesson before he left Ysaÿe for Enescu.
I mention this because I still remember my reaction to Lekeu’s sonata the first time I heard it. I kept watching the progress of the turntable arm across the record, wondering if and when it was ever going to reach the end. If ever there was a wanderer’s fantasy, this surely had to be it. To my ears, the music seemed to grope its way through a chromatic miasma of anti-melody and harmony as antithetical to music as antimatter is to the substance of space.
Lekeu seems to have inherited most of his bad habits and no good ones from his teacher César Franck, whose melodic and harmonic ingenuity and sense of proportionality usually save the day when it comes to his own discursive chromatic excursions. Not everyone, of course, reacts to Lekeu’s music as I did to his violin sonata on that first hearing so long ago, a fact amply evidenced by a number of respected colleagues who have written glowingly of his works. Adrian Corleonis, for example, suggests in a
23:4 review of the composer’s cello sonata that Lekeu may have been as gifted as Schubert, an interesting association to make, given that Schubert, too, was a composer who, once he got going, often didn’t know how or when to stop.
After Franck died, Lekeu went to study with Vincent d’Indy, who imposed a bit more classical discipline on his young charge. D’Indy’s influence was important, for it instilled in Lekeu an appreciation for chamber music and the works of the German masters, particularly the late quartets of Beethoven, along with a love of Wagner. When you mix all of these elements together—Franck, d’Indy, late Beethoven, and Wagner—what you get is Lekeu’s 1891 C-Minor Trio. At least according to note author Andrew Deruchie, it is a work that bears a strong resemblance to Chausson’s famous
, another Ysaÿe-inspired piece. I tend to agree with Deruchie’s description of the music—in places it really does sort of sound like Chausson’s
, but there’s one little problem with the comparison. The
wouldn’t be written for another five years.
Like the violin sonata of a year later, Lekeu’s MO in the piano trio is much the same: dense textures, thoroughgoing chromatic harmony, and reliance on cyclic form. Unlike the sonata, however, the trio’s chromaticism seems more purposeful and its expression, rather than cool and detached, is intensely dramatic and passionate. More than once, in fact, it wasn’t Chausson who came to mind, but Brahms. Listen, for example, to the passage beginning around the four-minute mark in the trio’s third movement, which functions as the work’s Scherzo. I have to admit that my opinion of Lekeu was beginning to turn around, though I wasn’t quite ready to accord him Schubert status.
Late in 1892, Lekeu set out on composing a piano quartet, but work progressed so slowly that only the first movement and part of a second had been committed to paper a little more than a year later when Lekeu died. D’Indy added a few extra measures to the unfinished second movement to make it performable.
The piano quartet opens on a scene of intense angst. Lekeu even marked it
Dans un emportement
(in a rage). It’s quite attention-grabbing, but it lasts no more than 30 seconds before it’s assuaged by more of the composer’s impassioned chromatic lyricism. The entire first movement is a 15-minute outpouring of emotions so intense, so personal, so private, and so painful it almost hurts to listen to it.
Where Lekeu would have gone with the second movement had he lived to finish it, we can’t know, but its 10 minutes, marked
Lent et passionné
, are of a heart-throbbing sadness and breathtaking beauty inexpressible in words.
There’s no doubt that these two works, played with such aching and tender expression by the Hochelaga Trio, have been an epiphany for me. Any composer capable of writing music like this has to be touched by genius. To be sure, Lekeu’s genius was not perfect. It was flawed, I believe, by a lack of self-discipline that led to indulging in too much of a good thing. But that’s a common sin of youth, and he was, after all, only a day past his 24th birthday when he died. Had he lived to a normal age, he would surely have learned, as Brahms did, “to let the superfluous notes slip under the table.” One can hardly say that what Lekeu left us in his short life are crumbs. Thanks to his penchant for prolixity, he left us large loaves of bread, and the two on this disc are simply too mouthwatering to leave unconsumed. This goes straight to my 2012 Want List and is urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Piano and Strings by Guillaume Lekeu
Teng Li (Viola)
Written: 1888; Belgium
Piano Trio in C minor: I. Lent - Allegro
Piano Trio in C minor: II. Tres lent
Piano Trio in C minor: III. Tres anime
Piano Trio in C minor: IV. Lent - Anime
Piano Quartet (unfinished): I. Dans un emportement douloureux
Piano Quartet (unfinished): II. Lent et passionne (completed by d'Indy)
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