As an old man Charles Koechlin wrote: "One of the most dreadful diseases of our day is the desire to be modern", but he was no starchy conservative. Far from it, in fact - Koechlin counted among his friends virtually all the leading French musicians of his day, old and young, adventurous and less so, and acknowledged and even assimilated all the trends. He was a big fan of the burgeoning Hollywood film industry - witness the many works or movements named after popular actresses - and became president of the Popular Music Federation in France.
He also wrote a fair bit for Adolphe Sax's recently-invented instrument, praising it in his academic writing as "a timbre that no other can replace". All such soloRead more works in his corpus are brought together on this new bargain-priced triple CD from Brilliant Classics, one of a wave of recent releases featuring this most underrated of French composers' music.
In fact, although this set has much to recommend it musically, it is not quite the bargain it might have been. For one thing, there is a fair amount of 'recycling', from the piano and chamber orchestra versions of the two saxophone sonatinas to the Sept Pièces, originally intended for horn. More importantly, though, the array of recording dates and venues has thrown up some inconsistencies in sound quality. There is actually quite severe distortion towards the end of the Wind Septet, where the microphones just cannot cope with a combination of volume and high pitches. There is similar loss at the end of op.165bis, and a small amount in the flute during Epitaphe. Timpani's engineers, on their virtually simultaneous recording of the Septet (1C1193), show Brilliant how it should be done.
On the whole, however, considering that this release can be found on the internet, by the alert shopper, for around the same price as a single Naxos disc, these audio issues, once noted, may be worth disregarding for access to Koechlin's marvellous music, certainly until new recordings come along. After all, the aforementioned distortion only affects a few minutes' worth of music, and sound quality of the first two CDs is uniformly impressive. Capturing well both saxophone and piano is no simple task.
In any case, it is hard to imagine anyone not liking Koechlin's music, whether for saxophone or any other instruments: all of the late-period pieces heard here are immensely melodic and idiomatic, uncomplicated on the surface yet expressive of a considered intelligence that writes for listeners and performers as well as self. In this way he can be compared with Saint-Saëns, to whom he came to bear a physical likeness in later years - though with a much more impressive beard.
There are many highlights, such as the 24 Duos, which combine SATB instruments in various pairings. These should be required study for all saxophonists, yet they are far superior to mere didactics. Ditto the 15 Etudes, which are a collection of beautiful cameos rather than studies in the more academic sense. The 7 Pieces are even more strikingly memorable, like Koechlin's most popular Epitaphe: nostalgic, sometimes haunting works that are however "full of the visionary hope that leads to optimism, energy and joy as vital antidotes to the problems of everyday life", as annotator Robert Orledge aptly sums up the composer's music. It is worth noting that, unlike some, nowhere in any of these works does Koechlin make use of the platitudes and clichés of the jazz instrument.
As the CD cover implies, star of the show on these three discs is saxophonist David Brutti, who appears as soloist, as one half of the Duo Disecheis, a quarter of the Atem Saxophone Quartet and even in the ensemble of the Orchestra Città Aperta. His tonal colourings are lustrous and luxurious, his phrasing natural and gratifying. Running a close second is Filippo Farinelli, pianist or conductor on numerous tracks. The booklet notes are in English only, but informative and well written, supplemented by detailed biographies of all performers.
Of Koechlin - whose Alsace-originating name is pronounced as if spelt Kéclin (rhyming with French 'né' and nasal 'vin') - British critic Wilfrid Mellers wrote that he counts "among the very select number of contemporary composers who really matter". For 1942 this was a particularly prescient remark, and it is high time he was allowed to take his rightful place in the pantheon alongside Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Saint-Saëns.