Reviews

GMCD 7391 – Le Piano Français – Virtuoso Piano Concertos

Timon Altwegg (piano), Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse, Gilles Colliard (conductor)

To the CD in our Shop


CLASS: aktuell – Im Blickpunkt – 2014/1

Dies ist eine interessante und schöne Sammlung unterhaltsamer Klavierkonzerte aus der Feder hierzulande leider nur wenig bekannter französischer Komponisten, die ihre Hauptwirkungszeit in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts hatten. Einfühlsam vorgestellt und interpretiert von Timon Altwegg, der als gefragter Solist und Kammermusiker in ganz Europa, den USA und Südamerika unterwegs ist. Als Solist hat er sich vor allem als Interpret Spanischer und Lateinamerikanischer Komponisten einen Namen gemacht. Dank der grossen Publikumserfolge seiner Tourneen im Ausland wir er regelmässig vom Centre de Compétence Culturelle des EDA unterstütz.
Kulturbotschafter
Ausserdem ist er aufgrund eines grossen Engagements für englische Komponisten zum Musical Advisor des Swain-Alexander Trusts in London berufen worden. Eines seiner Hauptanliegen ist die Wiederentdeckung und Präsentation zu Unrecht vernachlässigter Komponisten. Seine ausgezeichnete Technik wird auch von vielen zeitgenössischen Komponisten geschätzt, die für ihn ständig neue Werke schreiben. Altwegg ist Dozent an der Pädagogischen Hochschule Thurgau und an der Maturitätsschule Kreuzlingen.

Expedition Audio – March 2014

Recommendation
Guild Records has been proving their pudding of late by releasing exceptionally fine yet little known repertoire in quintessential performances. They do so again with ‘Le Piano Français’. Pianist Timon Altwegg with conductor Gilles Colliard and the Chamber Orchestra of Toulouse present four works by 20th century French composers, all of which, in all likelihood, are not yet in your collection.
During the 19th century, French composers held to certain stylistic preferences that distinguished their music from their German contemporaries. Although not easy to define concisely, the differences in part grew from the French predilection for opera and ballet over concert music – symphonies and concertos for example, coming from Germany. One genre that gained popularity in France during the last couple of decades of the 19th century, and remained popular well into the 20th, was works of a concertante style. In many respects, these pieces were concertos, but free of the structural ‘rules’ that defined the genre outside France. Composers who carried this tradition through the beginning of the 20th century included Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc.
The program of this CD shows the concertante form alive and well a generation after the aforementioned composers with four diverse works for piano and string orchestra. The composers are Jean Rivier (1896-1987), Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), Jean Wiener (1896-1982), and – the youngest of the group born in 1926 – Jacques Castérède. The first two pieces, Concerto Brève by Jean Rivier and Capriccio Op. 49 by renowned concert pianist Robert Casadesus, share similar sound spheres, which in turn overlap with those of Prokofiev and Ravel. In the outer movements, melodic material can be sparse and angular, and rhythmic patterns disjointed, at times polymetric. Both works have rather haunting slow movements; the Rivier wades forward like a dirge, and the Casadesus drifts along in a mysterious timelessness. This last mentioned Casadesus movement is the first of two samples you’ll find available in the right sidebar of this page.
Jean Wiener’s Piano Concerto No. 1 “Franco Americain” is the lightest and most broadly appealing work of the four. The opening movement is bright and sunny, the second, lush and lyrical with a jazzy, Gershwinesque touch. The finale returns to the high-spirits of the opening movement where an unsophisticated, almost carnival atmosphere can be felt. The Castérède Concerto for piano and string orchestra, colored by overtones of Messiaen, Stravinsky and Bartók, is the darkest of the four works and, in the end, is probably my favorite. The Scherzo from this piece is the second sample in the video on the right.
All four works are tonal, melodic, and clearly written to be enjoyed, which I found easy to do.
Paul Ballyk

Audiophile Audition – February 2014

This might be a must-purchase for fans of the piano concerto and French music, especially if they prefer off-the-beaten-track music. The album notes go into French music setting itself apart from German-dominated Europe, looking elsewhere for musical models than the Austro-Germanic sonata form. So there were relatively few full-scale symphonies and concertos. All four of these piano concertos are for piano and small string orchestra and two of them reject the Germanic three-movement structure.
Milhaud was a major figure in French music, and he wrote 11 piano concertos, and with his friend Jean Wiener—whose 1923 concerto is on this disc—loved American jazz and let it influence his work. Its second movement looks forward to Ravel’s Piano Concerto. The concertos of the other three composers all come from within 1952 and ’54. Rivier’s music is within the neoclassical school and influenced by Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The great French pianist Robert Casadesus wrote seven works for piano and orchestra, including some for two and three pianos, as well as seven symphonies. His fame as a concert pianist tended to overshadow his composing work. His Capriccio is a balanced and brilliant work. Its four movements are shared in number by the Concerto of Casterede, a still-living composer. It has a simple melodic cast with a particular Gallic charm, in a rural atmosphere. The second movement is scherzo-like, and the third is the heart of the concerto, with the orchestra playing a major part. The Rondo final movement returns to a neo-classic style and builds toward an urbane conclusion.
John Sunier

Crocks Newsletter – January 2013

Composed between 1923 and 1954 the four French concertante works for piano and string orchestra on this CD cover a stylistic spectrum ranging from Franck (1822-1890), Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Fauré (1845-1924), and d’Indy (1851-1931), through Ravel (1875-1937), Honegger (1892-1955), Milhaud (1892-1974, see 17 February 2007), and Poulenc (1899-1963). We have Guild to thank for bringing these Gallic goodies to light, giving us the only recordings of them currently on disc.
The program begins with Concerto Brève by Jean Rivier (1896-1987), who taught along with Milhaud at the Paris Conservatory. One of Jean’s eleven concertos for various instruments, it was his second for piano. Completed in 1953, it’s of neo-classical deportment with turns of phrase recalling Poulenc.
The first of its three movements marked “Leggiero burlesco” (“Light and Humorous”) [T-1] soon finds the soloist stating an angular folksy tune (AF) [00:09] that will dominate the piece. A catchy elaborative development follows, and then the movement ends with an unresolved upward spiraling passage for soloist and tutti.
The aloof “Lento nostalgico” (“Slow and Nostalgic”) [T-2] is built on a subdued version of AF that saunters about. This ends uneventfully, and the final “Allegro violento” (“Fast and Furious”) [T-3] suddenly bursts on the scene. Here animated AF-derived bravura passages surround a harmonically searching inner episode [01:05-02:12]. The concerto then ends in a final frenetic machine-gun coda.
Most remember Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) as one of France’s greatest concert pianists, but he also wrote a considerable amount of music, which includes seven symphonies as well as ten concertante works. The latter encompass four for a single piano with the Capriccio of 1952 being the next work. Set in four movements, the opening allegro [T-4] resembles a rondo with a flippant recurring idea (FR) [00:16] for a subject.
The following scherzo [T-5] is a delicate virtuosic romp for the soloist over a pizzicato-accented accompaniment, and may bring Prokofiev (1891-1953) to mind. But the pace relaxes in the lovely adagio [T-6], which would seem to draw its inspiration from the “Night Music” in the slow movements of Bartók’s (1801-1945) piano concertos (1926-45). Here a velveted nocturnal string sky is dotted with twinkling piano stars. This elegant concerto then ends in another allegro [T-7] of rondo disposition based on a vivacious theme closely related to FR.
The next composer represented is Jean Wiener (1896-1982), who studied at the Paris Conservatory where one of his fellow students was Darius Milhaud. Jean was also a pianist of some note in French popular music establishments. These included that famous Parisian nightclub Le boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof, or Nothing-Doing Bar), which was named after Darius’ delightful 1920 ballet based on Brazilian popular music.
Although best remembered for his film scores, Wiener also wrote concert works that include two piano concertos, the first of which dating from 1923 comes next. Just like Milhaud’s creations from back then, American jazz elements figure heavily in this piece, and are reflected in its subtitle “Franco American.”
In three movements, the initial one marked “Trés sonore et trés marque” (“Very Sonorous and Pronounced”) [T-8] begins with a simple baroque-like melody (SB) [00:00] that could be out of a J.S. Bach (1685-1750) keyboard concerto. This is elaborated with jazzy riffs, and succeeded by a harmonically searching cadenza. The movement then ends with a dramatic recap of SB by the soloist followed by an explosive closing coda for all.
The following “Trés lent” (“Very Slow”) [T-9] has great listener appeal with bluesy outer sections surrounding a lovely proud tune [03:20] recalling 1920’s dance hall music. It’s a perfect contrast to the captivating final “Alla brève” (“Quickly”) [T-10] that’s built around a tuneful folkish ditty related to SB, and contains a rhapsodic cadenza. The latter impertinently transitions into a return of SB [03:55], ending this beautifully crafted concerto full circle.
A frequent prize winner and distinguished academician, Jacques Castérède (b. 1926) has written a substantial number of works that include two piano concertos, and it’s the earlier one of 1954 which fills out this release. The first of its four movements, “Pastorale” [T-11], is an amalgam of Franck and Ravel with a peaceful opening theme for the tutti that’s picked up by the piano. Some bravura solo passagework set against shimmering strings ensues, after which the opening mood returns concluding the movement as it began.
Not for amateurs, the succeeding “Scherzo” [T-12] with its demanding finger work and buzzing strings is Jacques’ answer to Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) timeless Flight of the Bumblebee from his opera The Tale of the Tsar Sultan (1900, currently unavailable on disc). While “Nocturne” [T-12], the longest movement, is a dark meditation for the soloist supported by sinuous chromatically spiced strings.
There’s a whimsical irreverence about the closing “Rondo” recalling Jean Françaix (1912-1997, see 21 October 2013). Based on a wiry motif a bit reminiscent of the second theme in Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Symphonic Metamorphosis… (1943), it brings this engaging Guild release to a whirlwind finish.
Swiss pianist Timon Altwegg delivers technically accomplished, exciting performances of all four concertos. He receives superb support from the Toulouse Chamber orchestra under Gilles Colliard. There’s a Gallic swagger about their performances that makes these undiscovered keyboard gems all the more ear-catching. The only reservation would be a hint of intonational instability in the first movement of the Casadesus [T-4].
The recordings were made at Studio Elixir in Toulouse, France. They present an appropriately proportioned soundstage in a space that seems much more reverberant than pictures of this facility would imply. This and what sound like premature fadeouts on louder tracks make one wonder whether some “reverb” was later added. If that was the case, the sonic image would have fared better without it.
As for the overall instrumental timbre, it’s bright at the top end with some digital blurring in forte piano passages, and occasional steely sounding strings. However, the balance between soloist and tutti remains acceptable throughout.
Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found

Musik & Theater – Oktober/November 2013

Flirt mit dem Jazz
Bei so viel klanglichem Raffinement und Charme ist es erstaunlich, dass keines der vier Konzerte für Klavier und Streichorchester von Jean Rivier, Robert Casadesus, Jean Wiener und Jacques Castérède zum Standardrepertoire zählt. Trotz des vorherrschenden Neoklassizismus könnten die Unterschiede der zwischen 1896 und 1926 geborenen Franzosen nicht grösser sein. Verwandtschaftliche Züge sind nur in den Scherzo-Sätzen von Casadesus und Castérède herauszuhören. Der Schweizer Pianist Timon Altwegg glänzt da mit wunderbar leichtem Jeu perlé, um andererseits im Finale des «Concerto brève» von Rivier dem vorherrschenden Toccatencharakter mit angriffigem Spiel gerecht zu werden. Als originellstes Werk setzt sich das vom Jazz inspirierte, der Fürstin Edmond de Polignac gewidmete Concerto «FrancoAméricain» von Wiener über die klassizistische Ausrichtung hinweg. Ebenso ungewohnt wie die Themenverwandtschaft der Ecksätze ist der Tonartenplan: In Des-Dur stehend, umrahmen sie einen bluesartigen Mittelsatz in F-Dur, der sich durch regen Taktwechsel und grossen Synkopenreichtum auszeichnet. In den rhythmischen Energien, die Timon Altwegg elektrisierend freilegt, hält das von Gilles Colliard spritzig geleitete Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse mühelos Schritt. Eine äusserst vergnügliche Repertoirebereicherung voll Spielwitz und Brillanz.
Walter Labhart

International Record Review – November 2013

Robert Matthew-Walker’s ever-helpful booklet notes trace a sequence of short French piano concertante works through Faure, Franck, Saint-Saens and d’Indy. This disc of neoclassic concertos with strings continues the line through to 1952. Probably the best-known name here to IRR readers will be that of Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), highly respected pianist from a musical family. I’ve accompanied various wind pieces by Jacques Casterede (b.1926) and enjoyed his Ménage à trois (as who wouldn’t?) for six hands on one piano; I’d heard of Jean Rivier (1896-1987); but the name that leapt out to me first was that of Jean Wiener (1896-1982).
An unofficial ‘set book’ among the handful of affordable ones from impecunious musicstudent days of long ago was a Penguin symposium entitled European Music in the Twentieth Century (1957, revised 1961). The most-thumbed chapter in it – trenchant and still highly readable more than 50 years on – was that on French music by David Drew (1930-2009, best known as author of possibly the first serious assessment of Messiaen). When he was desperately searching for a worthy successor to Debussy and Ravel among the likes of Satie, Koechlin, Milhaud and Jolivet (even Roussel didn’t come up to the mark), his encounter with the 1920s frivolity of Wiener – and specifically this Concerto, ‘Franco-Americain’ – provoked him into, so to speak, chewing the furniture. ‘Wholly uninteresting as a composer’ was his verdict, a composer who in this concerto’s first movement ‘instead of adding the insult of meaningless harmonies to the injury of common melodic jargon … presented that same jargon in its crudest form’. Drew dismissed the finale theme in particular as being ‘of unsurpassed and unsurpassable vulgarity’. Ouch! How could anyone reading that judgement resist playing this piece (third on the disc) first?
The opening tutti certainly starts like Pulcinella without the wrong notes, especially when as dully performed as here by the Toulousians under Swiss-born Gilles Colliard. (A rival version from Danielle Laval and the Monte-Carlo PO under Pascal Verrot on a Naive download may be better: I haven’t heard it.) The soloist’s nightclub interludes sound dated now, but less so when you learn that this piece dates from the very same year as Wiener’s fellow-student Milhaud’s pioneering jazz exercise La Création du monde, and that Wiener himself (before starting work on up to 300 film scores) was resident pianist at Le Boeuf sur le Toit – not Milhaud’s other piece, that is, but the very nightclub named after it. Wiener’s second movement is pure cocktail piano; the finale, I’m afraid, is wince-makingly obvious, covering similar ground to Jean Francaix’s Concertino though in far less subtle fashion. Again, the opening tutti could have been more wittily played. But in perhaps expecting more than the piece intended to deliver, Drew could be accused of – in Clive James’s telling phrase – ‘kicking a powder-puff’.
Rivier composed eight symphonies and 11 concertos, one of which – that for alto sax, trumpet and orchestra – is available on Marco Polo (8.225127). His most-recorded piece, however, is probably the Grave et Presto for saxophone quartet. Drew’s chapter dealt with him more briefly, though scarcely more flatteringly, than Wiener: this Concerto Brève opens the disc, filling four-bar phrases with commonplace rhythms and gritted-teeth dissonance. Well worth a listen, even so: the finale springs from the second scene of Petrushka and the whole piece reminded me of Roussel and Honegger. Casadesus wrote seven symphonies, and his concertos included family affairs for two and three pianos: wife Gaby and son Jean were also pianists. (His opus numbers reached 68: one scans his discography as a busy pianist and wonders how he found the time.) Prevailing influences here include Prokofiev, Bartok (particularly the finale, recalling the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) and, fleetingly, Britten and Blacher. The whole concerto is high-pitched (I wondered for a while if the orchestral part included basses at all) and its opening is uncomfortably similar to Rivier’s finale, which immediately precedes it on the disc. The orchestra leader should have been credited by name with a valiant approach to a quite ungrateful solo violin part. The tinkly Prokofievian secondmovement moto perpetuo is the most striking movement of the four, its trio sounding by contrast almost British-pastoral.
After Wiener comes the less prolific Casterede, his discography almost bare save for a few brass pieces. His 1954 Concerto starts lyrically, with a Pastorale that RM-W shrewdly links to Faure, and a second movement he compares to Prokofiev’s Second Concerto. The solo part is relentless: Swissborn soloist Timon Altwegg is dazzling, here and throughout, and I’m sure the slowing down from 2’35” derives from a note in the score rather than sheer fatigue. Memories of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin flash by, and the whole movement dissolves delightfully. The arguably over-long third movement Nocturne (longer than the two previous movements combined) groans in a Honeggerian manner, relieved by a perky finale that rounds off, most satisfyingly, an exciting disc recommended for the curious, for piano fanciers, for lecturers seeking to illustrate neo-classicism and for lovers of well-recorded sound. I will now re-read Drew with greater insight.
Michael Round

Thurgauer Zeitung – 8. Juli 2013

Der Thurgauer Pianist Timon Altwegg hat unter dem Titel «Le Piano français» eine neue CD herausgebracht, die vier kompakte Klavierkonzerte vereint. Die Aufnahme ist eine quirlige Entdeckungsreise zu einem Stück wenig bekannter Musik.
Timon Altwegg liebt Partituren mit vielen Noten, und das Virtuose ist etwas, worin er sich gerne tummelt. Bei den Werken seiner neuen CD kommt er dabei voll auf seine Kosten. Quirlig, mit direktem Zugriff, mit fast kühler, immer objektivierender Brillanz geht Altwegg an vier französische Klavierkonzerte heran, deren Komponisten man hierzulande kaum kennt. Es sind Jean Rivier (1896–1987), Robert Casadesus (1899–1972), Jean Wiener (1896–1982) und Jacques Castérède, dem mit Geburtsjahr 1926 einzig noch lebenden der vier.
Die vier kurz und kompakt gehaltenen Klavierkonzerte mit Streichorchester ähneln sich stilistisch sehr. Sie sind im besten Sinne spritzig eingängig, voller Schwung, perlend, einfach erfrischend. Vieles in den Werken erinnert an die Tonsprache von Darius Milhaud, einer prägenden Figur im französischen Musikleben Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts.
Neoklassizistisch
Die vier Werke sind Klaviermusik, die eher weniger Anleihe nehmen am französischen Impressionismus und seinen raffinierten Klangmischungen. Es überwiegt das neoklassizistische Element, meist herrscht holzschnittartige Klarheit. Es sprudelt und rauscht, alles wirkt klar und transparent. Dies auch dank des genauen, manchmal bewusst kantigen Klavierspiels von Timon Altwegg, dem hier sein grosses technisches Können zugunsten kecken und genau ausgeführten Zugriffs zugute kommt. Nicht minder frisch begleitet das Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse unter Gilles Colliard. Altwegg und Colliard, der auch (ein bereits mehrfach ausgezeichneter) Geiger ist, haben bereits eine CD zusammen realisiert, auf der sie Violin-Klavier-Sonaten von Hans Huber einspielten.
Reizvolle Entdeckungen
Die Klavierkonzert-CD erlaubt eine spannende und eher leichter verdauliche Reise zu einem Stück ziemlich und zu Unrecht unbekannter französischer Literatur. Und in jedem Klavierkonzert lassen sich einige reizvolle Entdeckungen machen. Da mag man den rassigen, an Strawinsky oder Prokofjew gemahnenden Anfang von Jean Riviers Konzert erwähnen. Spannend auch Jean Wieners Concerto «Franco Americain», das fast festlich barock beginnt, um dann ins Jazzige überzugehen. Der zweite Satz ist quasi filmisch gedacht, und das Finale erinnert an Revuehaftes.
Sehr flüssig und vorwärts drängend geht es in weiten Teilen dieser französischen Klavierlandschaft zu und her. Da geniesst man umso mehr einmal ein schön und lyrisch intensiv durchgeformtes ruhigeres Nocturne in Jacques Castérèdes Concerto.
Martin Preiser