Notes and Editorial Reviews
Les Heures persanes
Ralph van Raat (pn)
NAXOS 8572473 (56:44)
Neither composer Charles Koechlin nor his masterpiece, translated as
The Persian Hours,
is nearly as well known or popular as Granados’s
let alone the music of Debussy, so they have fallen into the category of musical oddities. (Other
recordings include Kathryn Stott on Chandos 9974 and Michael Korstick on Hänssler 93246, also an orchestral version by Heinz Holliger and the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra on Hänssler 93125.) Part of the problem is that nearly all of the pieces in the suite are slow-moving, meaning that the pianist (or conductor in an orchestral version) needs to sustain not only the proper mood but also a semblance of forward momentum.
Enter pianist Ralph van Raat to the rescue. His recording of the suite, albeit slow-moving (slower, in fact, than Holliger’s orchestral recording), has such tremendous atmosphere and a sense of presence that one is seduced into Koechlin’s world and his own interpretation within the first three minutes of the recording.
Koechlin’s view of Persia (now Iran) was based on astronomical observations and a travelogue of the time rather than a first-hand trip to the area. Thus he captured a personal impression of Middle Eastern life, particularly nightlife when the stars were out and the world was still. Harmonically, he was at least as advanced as late-period Debussy, if not actually further along. Although most of these pieces tend toward a harmonically identifiable key, they skew away from it constantly; by the middle of each piece, the unobservant listener will be completely lost in regards to a harmonic base or balance. Some of them have an ostinato bass in one key, but the overlying music is in another. Indeed, it is this constant leaning away from
tonality—and the fact that the music sometimes leans in both directions at once—that gives it its unique flavor. Koechlin somehow manages to set up what sounds like a safe base but gently yet constantly pushes us away from it.
Raat’s performance, as already mentioned, is both musical and fascinating in the extreme. I do, however, question the very long pauses between each piece in the suite. After about the first 10 numbers, you’re not quite sure if each succeeding piece is the last one or not, but that’s probably a post-production decision. If you love this kind of music, this is a CD you simply cannot live without.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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