Quartets n°1 & n°2The Ardeo quartet
Quartet n°1 op. 51 in D
Quartet n°2 op. 57
Sound recording : Jean-Marc Laisné.
Recorded at the lutherian church Saint-Marcel in Paris on 2, 3, 4 and 5 october 2006.
Booklet : Ludovic Florin.
AR RE-SE 2006-3
Demanding, Yet Generous: Charles Koechlin’s Quartets
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was a man of many lives: besides composition, he was also interested in mathematics (after two years at the École Polytechnique), astronomy, literature, architecture (he himself drew the plans for his vacation homes), photography and cinema. He was also a great walker who communed with nature wherever he went, be it France, Turkey, Morocco, Spain or Greece. His scores mirror this openness: The New City for astronomy, The Seven stars Symphony for cinema, Jean-Christophe after Romain Rolland, The Book of the Jungle, The Persian Hours, etc. Each of these works contains several perfectly mastered musical styles. In one single opus, Koechlin will use Gregorian modes, tonal superimposition or even atonalism, thus showing that he is not dominated by any particular dogma. His soul, however, is never lost, and a few measures are enough to make out his sound signature. A highly independent mind, he seems to pay a high price for that courage in a country like France where everything has to be classified and labeled. Koechlin is, indeed, still under-rated to this day, although he was one of the greatest composers of the first half of the 20th century. This recording is therefore a highly interesting one.
Even if one includes the opus 122 – two fugues composed in 1932 – it may still come as a surprise that there aren’t more scores for string quartet among the two hundred and twenty works in his catalogue – at least as compared to his more prolific contemporaries (for instance, Milhaud, Shostakovich or Martinu). However, Koechlin did not limit himself to writing one Quartet either, as did his master Fauré, along with Debussy, Ravel or Roussel. From Fauré, Koechlin no doubt inherited the respect that was due to string quartet, considered as the most elevated form of pure music ever since Beethoven’s brilliant successes in this field. He was, however, particularly qualified to write abundantly for this genre, being recognized as one of the most knowledgeable musicians, one who his colleagues would turn to when confronted with thorny, apparently insolvable issues. This skill is encapsulated in his numerous didactic works, such as the Treatise on Harmony (1924-25), the Treatise on Orchestration (1954-1959) and most importantly his Treatise on Modal Polyphony (1931) for the quartet writing in four real voices, his Studies on choral (1929), fugue (1934) and counterpoint (as early as 1926). The composer tested all possible instrumental combinations, from a solo instrument to a grand orchestra with soloists and choir. Nevertheless, his three Quartets represent the evolution in style that took place between his first and his second manner.
The composition of these Quartets is usually dated as follows: First Quartet, from 1911 to 1913; Second between 1915 and 1916; Third from 1917 to 1921. But the sketches which are kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France show that the writing of each Quartet spanned over a longer period of time. The first drafts of the First Quartet bear the dates of 22 May-6 June 1902. The Quartet received the stamp of the Composers’ Society on 10 July 1914, but Koechlin still created “variants (in keeping with the edition)” on 28 February 1921. The composition of the opus 57 did, indeed, start in 1915, on 25 June to be precise, with sketches for the first movement. The scherzo was finished in September, 1916. But the drafts of the finale bear the dates of 28 August 1909 to 1 August 1915. Koechlin then made a clean copy of the Quartet and reviewed it in its entirety on 1-2 August 1921. Finally, the main ideas of the last Quartet range from 13 June 1913 to 18 August 1919, and the final chord was written on 15 August 1921. As seen through the prism of this chronology, the Quartets are not the fruit of a hasty work. On the contrary: each note has been carefully weighted and reflected on, and each Quartet was thoroughly reviewed in 1921, probably as a result of the composer hearing his First Quartet, opus 51, which premiered on 19 May 1921 in Paris by the Pascal Quartet.
Leaving aside the short pieces that bear the opus 20, 32 and 34, the opus 51 inaugurates the chamber music domain in the composer’s catalogue. The dedication “To my master André Gédalge” reveals not only Koechlin’s sincere gratitude, but also his debt towards the counterpoint and fugue teaching given at the Paris Conservatory. In this Quartet, indeed, Koechlin develops a science of the melodic line, of the voice follow-up (with frequent intertwinings) that makes this first try in the field of quartet an ideal balance between technical command and musical quality. Within a nimble sonata form, two themes are transformed, modulated upon, superimposed, in a very free manner, worlds apart from any academic style. The measure bars are always present but their whimsical quality (6/4, 9/4, 12/4, 4 1/2/4, 3 1/2/4, etc.) show us how uncomfortable the music is under the yoke of the measure bars, which is always about to explode under the composer’s quill. The range from the low open fifths at the cello up until the celestial high-pitched notes of the violinists probably reflects, in a poetic and unconscious transposition of sorts, Koechlin’s passion for the great mountain spaces that he liked to wander through. The Scherzo which follows also has a very unstable time signature. It is built upon a lullaby-like melody, as though the composer wanted to give back their original innocence to the most complicated structures. The colours in this deliciously clear page are varied through a great number of different sound effects (pizzicati, harmonics, extreme registers, tremolos, etc.) and through extremely rapid tonality changes. The Andante quasi adagio is a nocturne with a perpetual movement based on fateful eigth-notes. A calm tension emanates from a rather romantic chromaticism, felicitously balanced by the dense writing through nuances that never go beyond mezzo piano.
One single melody wanders throughout the movement, going from one instrument to the other. The Finale sounds less serious: it is conceived as a parody of the first school of Vienna, and especially of Haydn in the refrain placed at the beginning of this rondo, which foreshadows the neo-classical movement. However, each verse shows itself in keeping with the time when it was composed (complex variations, harsh sounds, etc.). After the return of the refrain, the last verse brings about a surprising modulation in C major in which a very pure phrase unfolds in an almost gallant style. The conclusion is even clearer, calmer and, instead of D major (the original key), finishes in A major.
The opus 57 was never officially premiered and it became the First Symphony, opus 57 bis, after it was orchestrated in 1927. It appears as an experimental work in which specific research paths are explored in each movement. In this perspective, the first movement would be a study in harmonies without a real theme, under the shape of a series of arpeggi which constantly change colour and a deeply original thought in the musical universe of the time. From the initial Adagio onwards, the tempo constantly slows down, developing a still aesthetics of time akin to the Persian Hours, opus 65, which were composed at about the same time (1916-19). Far from any exoticism, this time frame, which Koechlin certainly perceived during his trips in the East, is an integral part of his language. Another time frame, a shredded one this time, appears in the subsequent Scherzo, a rhythmic study with ever-changing bases. It is a play in the strongest sense, among other things because of the use of a 11/8 time signature that was still an oddity in 1916. After a calmer central section (in 6/8), the initial energy resumes in full swing with writing that is already close to its future orchestral conception. The slow movement is a study in melodic variations on an eigth-note ostinato. A feeling of immutability is created by the writing, which is simple without being void, and close to choral at times. The finale is the most developed movement in the three Quartets, with 335 measures, no less (some of which are 15-beat measures!). More than a study, this is a magistral demonstration of a fugue, devoid of any boasting, an attitude which would have been alien to Koechlin’s personality. It reveals a pronounced taste for this form of writing, the admiration that the Parisian of Alsacian descent had for the music of the great German masters, and especially his genuine idolatry towards Johann Sebastian Bach. In this movement, the instruments act like a real orchestra with their double and triple strings and their eternal search for sound combinations. The first theme is a straightforward, decided one that serves as a subject for the fugue before it is superimposed on its counter-subject. It is followed by an important work in imitation. However, in certain places, Koechlin seems to purposely disrupt the mechanism that probably seemed too well-adjusted to him, using a sometimes latent, quite felicitous polytonality. On other occasions, he gives the discourse an intended archaic quality through sudden tonality changes underlined by the open fifths of the cello. All of a sudden, an Andante in a calm C major brings a contrast, before the resumption of a music characterized by an “organized disorder”. The true centre of the movement, this chaotic apex is finally projected towards a sudden illumination, in a flamboyant E major. Little by little, in a wave-like way, everything calms down, leaving the listener to the astonishment of this intense quarter of an hour. Koechlin, indeed, made no concession when it came to carrying out his artistic dreams: his music is “(…) both developed and interior; those sections are for people who are not in a hurry and are able to follow with attention and sympathy a fairly long evolution of feelings”, as he pointed it out himself in a letter from 20 December 1932.
The best possible conclusion is given by the composer in his book Study on Charles Koechlin by Charles Koechlin (1939): “All the same, [Koechlin] is unable, while writing, to analyze what he is writing, to the point that he never tries to find out where the theme is… To sing, to sing freely! Which does not mean without order, nor that there are not, sometimes, well-defined motifs. But each of his works really is a unique piece whose plan is determined by the living evolution of the themes and the feelings, by life itself, – and which was never decided beforehand, except sometimes in its broad outline (…).” This is why his music does not shy away from any demand in terms of interpretation, technique and therefore listening. It may be that these important works came too early; at any rate it is time they finally entered the repertoire next to such intense successes as Bartók’s, Carter’s, Dutilleux’s or Ligeti’s.Ludovic Florin
Translation: Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia and Alexandre Escorcia
The Press covers it !
« Recently I enjoyed discovering Koechlin’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 72 and Piano Quintet, Op. 80 played by the Antigone Quartet on Ar Ré-Sé so I was delighted to be able to review this 2013 reissue of an earlier release of Koechlin’s first two string quartets from the Ardeo Quartet on the same label. It was founded in 2001 when the members of the Ardeo Quartet met whilst studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Of real value to the Ardeo is the support it receives from Mécénat Musical Société Générale with a residence at the Singer-Polignac Foundation since 2008 and with ProQuartet since 2010. »
MusicWeb, Michael Cookson
« This is definitely a disc of discovery, both of the extraordinary quartets of the composer and polymath Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) and of the recently formed Ardeo Quartet. These four young musicians met in string-quartet class at the Paris Conservatoire and named themselves after the Latin word for “passion”. Koechlin's remarkable music defies easy description. In these quartets, it is often poly tonal and modal, but with an engaging sense of melody that the composer uses as the basis for extensive manipulation, often into fugal structural arcs which resonate back to Bach. The First Quartet abounds with brilliant theatrical strokes. The monumental Second, ending with an astonishing 17-minute last movement, is rich in counterpoint and vast, purified harmonic vistas. That a young French quartet has chosen to record Koechlin is less surprising than the mastery of ensemble the musicians bring to the task. They rejoice knowingly in the exhilaration of the Haydnesque last movement of Opus 51; they deconstruct with sensuous supplication the still-water aesthetics of the first movement of Opus 57. The recording has the combination of clarity and warmth it needs to seduce the listener. Ludovic Florin's liner notes explore Koechlin's work with compelling philosophical precision and musical detail. »
Strings Magazine, Février 2008, L. V.
« Navigating a way through Charles Koechlin's huge output (250 works plus) can be daunting. Even Grove's Dictionary baulks at a complete listing, though it does include the three string quartets. The first two date from 1913 and 1916, and make a valuable addition to the composer's stealthily expanding discography. Koechlin's natural musical habitat was the orchestra and he later orchestrated his Second Quartet and labelled it his First Symphony. But in its original form, along with its predecessor, it reveals the French roots of his music, with distant echoes of César Franck as well as the Beethoven tradition sustained in French music by Vincent D'Indy. There's a lot more in both works that is utterly distinctive to one of the most original and underrated composers of the first half of the 20th century, and these performances by the Ardeo Quartet, wonderfully supple and beautifully nuanced, deserve the widest currency. »
The Guardian, 23 novembre 2007, Andrew Clements
« As a world premiere, the AR RE-SE label is releasing a recording of two of the string quartets by Koechlin, one of the greatest French composers of the 20th century. The Ardeo Quartet was made up by young French musicians who met at the Paris Conservatoire, in the string-quartet class of M. Hentz and D. Hovora. »
Fnac’s review, Attention Talent
« The Ardeo Quartet was trained, in a one-time or a regular fashion, by members of the Fine Arts Quartet, the Hagen and the Talich Quartets (among others), and then went on to win several prizes, such as the Fondation Polignac’s and those awarded by the cities of Moscow (2004) and Bordeaux (2005). We therefore were very much looking forward to listening to these four Frenchwomen, especially in a program of French music: Koechlin’s First and Second Quartets. Koechlin was a trained scientist who authored several dialectic works – A Treatise in Harmony (1924-25), A Treatise in Orchestration (1954-59), A Treatise in modal polyphony (1931). It then comes as no surprise that the composer of the Persian Hours devoted three works to a formation that is connected with isumcal quintessence. These works were reviewed up until 1921, in the enthusiastic mood brought about by the premiere of the First Quartet (May 19) and the completion of the last one (August 15). The drafts of the First Quartet, opus 51, bear the dates of May 22 to June 6, 1902, but composition itself spans from 1911 to 1913. Besides this long conception, Koechlin also created variants (in keeping with the edition) as late as February 28, 1921. This work, which is dedicated to Massenet’s former student and counterpoint and fugue professor at the Paris Conservatoire André Gédalge, is truly the gateway to the composer’s chamber music production. This first try already features a remarkable balance between musical qualities and technical command, rural and sacred atmospheres (Allegro moderato), knowledge and innocence (Scherzo), innovation and parody (Finale). The Second Quartet, opus 57, which became the First Symphony, opus 57 bis after being orchestrated in 1927, was never officially premiered and remained discarded as an experimental work. Certain research paths may be recognized in it: study in harmonies without a real theme (Adagio), atypical time-frame for an early 20th-century piece (Scherzo), unbalanced movement duration (seventeen minutes for the Finale), etc. A perfect osmosis is created between the interpreters and Koechlin’s music, which is both developed and interior, as he put it himself in 1932. The Quartet’s skill in setting up languid atmospheres rests on a remarkably delicate and nuanced mastery which produces some purely chiselled sections. The more rhythmic places contain a cheerfulness devoid of wildness, even though they are more of a gambolling than of a dancing quality. This recording really deserves a special mention. »
Anaclase.com, Octobre 2007, Laurent Bergnach
« The Ardeo Quartet’s magnificent interpretation of Koechlin This young quartet is already earning a reputation. Their new recording of Koechlin’s first two quartets has been unanimously hailed by the critics, and rightly so. However, the Ardeo Quartet, which was formed at the Paris Conservatoire and enjoys the support of the Mécénat Musical Société Générale, had already drawn some attention in the past, particularly by winning in 2005 the 1st Prize of the French Federation of music school parent teacher association, Fnapec, and the Press Prize at the Bordeaux International String Quartet Contest. The Ardeo Quartet performs at major festivals and will be playing, on September 29, at the Septembre musical de l’Orne. »
Le Nouveau Musicien, N° 29, Septembre 2007
« It comes as no surprise that a master of the counterpoint, such as Koechlin, immediately found the balance between the voices that is so essential for a harmonious dialogue between the partners in a genre that is known for its difficulty (the string quartet). Be that as it may, the composer’s first try in this genre is a masterstroke : the dedication to his master Andre Gedalge (a genuine "French Tanaiev" who is shamefully forgotten nowadays) sets this magnificent score under the sign of counterpoint and especially that imitation practiced by Bach, always the star in Koechlin’s musical firmament. A pastoral feeling with a tinge of modality alternates with clear melodies which possess all the innocence of nursery rhymes sung by children in a spacious garden under the summer sun, and Daddy Haydn himself seems to have fathered the malicious finale (a witty parody of the first school of Vienna). The Second Quartet goes even further. Aside from Florent Schmitt’s amazing quartet, it is probably the most monumental French quartet of its day. Its content exceeds by far the bounds of a quartet, which explains why the composer orchestrated it into his first symphony. Its sturdy tonal foundation does not prevent Koechlin from practicing experiments that were still bold around 1915: "abstract" themes presented as arpeggi (in the first movement, which is far from having no theme, despite what the liner notes suggest), gradual slowdown towards a static immobility that is typical of the composer’s work, complex rhythmic study (Scherzo) and a highly personal solution to the eternal problem of the synthesis between the fugue and the sonata allegro. Polytonality and modality only expand the expressive possibilities, which bring us to a calm, luminous ending. The interpreters, supported by the Ar Re-Se label, bring great conviction into their interpretation of these masterly pages, which have their place next to the masterpieces of the genre, such as the contemporary quartets by Malipiero or Honegger. Their perfect synchronisation and the precision of their entries allow us to enjoy the elegant contours of the dense modal polyphony that is Koechlin’s signature. A few fleeting inaccuracies will be quickly forgotten when compared to the fervor and attention to detail with which the Ardeo quartet build the dynamic progressions, as in the middle part of the last movement of the Second Quartet. Such a thoughtful work will no doubt contribute to anchor in the usual repertoire these essential pages of French music. »
Classica-Répertoire, Juillet-Août 2007, Michel Fleury
« For Charles Koechlin, the years ranging from 1911 to 1921 were years in which chamber music was predominant. From the First String Quartet, finished in 1913, to the First Quintet for piano and strings from 1921, the composer imposed the mark of his radically independent personality on a well-established genre. The study “Koechlin by Koechlin”, published in 1981 by the Revue musicale, describes the process by which the composer approached chamber music and especially string quartet: “To sing, to sing freely! Which does not mean without order, nor that there are not, sometimes, well-defined motifs. But each of his works really is a unique piece whose plan is determined by the living evolution of the themes and the feelings, by their life itself”. It is necessary to remember the musician’s glance on himself in order to understand better what could be disconcerting for the listener in these two string quartets, composed respectively between 1911 and 1913 and between 1915 and 1916 – those dated being the ones given by the catalogue published in 1975; they are rectified by the liner notes for this CD in which we find out that the first drafts of the Opus 51 bear the dates of May 22 to June 6, 1902 (Ludovic Florin’s very thorough liner notes are an important contribution to the knowledge of Koechlin’s works). As for the performance by the Ardeo Quartet, formed in 2004 by Carole Petitdemange and Olivia Hughes (violin), Caroline Donin (viola) and Joëlle Martinez (cello), it is completely satisfying thanks to the cohesiveness of the four instruments and the spirit of the young interpreters. Finally, the time has come for Charles Koechlin’s work to occupy the place that it deserves! »
Le Monde de la musique, Mai 2006, Jean Roy
CD produced with the support pf Mécenat Musical Société Générale