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AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
Tamsin Waley-Cohen

 

 

Artist(s):
Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin
Huw Watkins, piano


Described as “The most exceptionally gifted young violinist I have ever encountered”
by Ruggiero Ricci, Tamsin Waley-Cohen explores her European/American heritage in her debut disc, An American in Paris.

· Tamsin says of this project: ' Song is one of the primary connections between all the works on this disc; folk songs, cafe songs, blues songs, traditional songs. I grew up with many of them; the Ives and the Gershwin, and even the Blues in the Ravel, from my American Mother. Some, such as the cafe songs of the Poulenc, are part of my European heritage. The juxtaposition of the beauty of these songs with the sardonic humour and the macabre, which in particular inhabit both the Ives and the Poulenc, adds power and poignancy to the content of these works.'

· Poulenc’s Violin Sonata, written while the composer was coming to terms with life under Nazi occupation, is dedicated to the memory of Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet and playwright who was murdered by opposition forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

· Ravel’s Sonata, composed between 1923 and 1927, contains long periods of refined, rather reserved music punctuated by moments of full-blooded passion and although influenced by blues is far from mere pastiche.

· Decoration Day was first composed by Charles Ives in 1912 woven with themes from part-fictional, part-autobiographical recollection of personal childhood memories. The piece was reconstructed by the pianist and scholar John Kirkpatrick from surviving sketches after 1919.

· George Gershwin visited Paris in 1928 and met, among other composers, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev and Berg. Although Porgy and Bess (1935) attracted mixed reviews, songs such as the lullaby ‘Summertime’, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ and the heartbreaking ‘My man’s gone now’ became instant hits. The arrangement by Heifetz heard here of half a dozen numbers from Porgy and Bess is testament to the high esteem in which the legendary violinist held his music.

· Tamsin Waley-Cohen was born in London in 1986. She is currently associate artist with Orchestra of the Swan and performs as a soloist with others including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra of St John's, London Concert Orchestra. Since 2007 she has played the 1721 ex-Fenyves Stradivarius violin.


 

 


In the heady days before the First World War, the Paris Herald kept wealthy Americans in touch with the latest fashions and fancies, the most important art exhibitions and cultural events and all the juiciest gossip from the French capital. The daily publication, an offshoot of the New York Herald, was unofficially known as the ‘sauciest paper in Europe’. As such its circulation extended beyond Belle Époque Paris to reach the imperial court in St Petersburg, the crowned heads of Great Britain, Italy and Spain and a procession of aristocrats and social climbers from Biarritz to Budapest. Although the old European order and millions of lives were soon to be destroyed by war and revolution, the spirit of Paris as a place of creativity and innovation survived the dark age of 1914-18 and gathered momentum once again in the post-war decade, the ‘Roaring Twenties’.

The Paris Herald also survived the firestorm of global warfare. The paper found a new market among the bright young things and flappers of the années folles, the so-called Crazy Years, during which all things modern found favour with consumers eager to erase memories of the recent past. It particularly appealed to a new wave of Americans in Paris, heavily populated with young expatriate artists, writers and musicians, many of whom were troubled by the insular worldview, institutionalised racism and ‘thou shalt not’ laws that attracted popular support from the moral majority back home. The composer and critic Virgil Thomson spoke for a generation when he observed that France appeared to be “a miracle spot like ancient Greece.” Small wonder that the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes on the Place Pigalle, once watering hole of choice for Manet, Degas and Renoir, became a place of pilgrimage for aspiring artists, committed bohemians and refugees from American Puritanism. It was here in the early 1890s that Erik Satie, who regularly played piano at the Nouvelle Athènes, first met the teenage Maurice Ravel.

Illusion and delusion played principal parts in shaping the collective myth of French liberty and the artistic superiority of Paris. France was, in reality, deeply

troubled by political instability and social unrest during the inter-war decades. And yet Paris, like London today, remained the place to be. All human life came to ‘gay Paree’ between the wars to be seduced by the city’s sensuous pleasures. The influx of outsiders introduced Paris to many new thrills, the neon-lit brilliance of American advertising signs offering clear evidence of modernity’s arrival from overseas. “This summer Paris is neither hot nor cold nor rainy; it is American,” noted Joseph Roth in August 1925 in his column for the Frankfurter Zeitung. “Everywhere you go, you hear the twang of American English, everywhere you encounter lanky figures in flat shoes, with big horn-rimmed glasses – the women as much as the men – extra-wide suits, red Baedeker guides in their hands, and lots of walking sticks and umbrellas.” While Roth’s report poked gentle fun at American tourists, Parisian musicians of all varieties made their way to the city’s cabaret bars and café-concerts to catch the infectious sounds of Dixieland jazz. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company and its impressive post-war rival, the Ballets Suédois, helped stoke the modernist melting pot with vibrant new dance works that absorbed and celebrated jazz influences. Paris, meanwhile, provided a haven for jazz bands visiting from America.

Francis Poulenc’s twenties coincided more or less neatly with the Roaring Twenties. The young composer, raised in a world of Belle Époque comfort, made his mark as a member of the Parisian avant-garde with works such as Trois mouvements perpétuels for solo piano, clearly inspired by the music of Erik Satie. Poulenc’s jazz-inflected Sonata for clarinet and bassoon of 1922 and sparky contribution to the 1921 Ballets Suédois production, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, project what the composer referred to as the ‘naughty-boy side’ of his nature. His melancholic side holds the spotlight in the Sonata for violin and piano. Poulenc drafted and destroyed two violin sonatas before creating his only surviving essay in the genre. “To tell the truth,” he recalled, “I don't like the violin in the singular. In the plural, it’s quite different.”

The Violin Sonata was written while its composer was coming to terms with the realities of life under occupying Nazi powers in the north of France and Marshall Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime in the south. In keeping with his pre-war custom, Poulenc continued to spend extended periods away from Paris at his country retreat in the village of Noizay in the Loire valley. It was here in the summer of 1942 that he began work on a new violin sonata; he completed the score in Noizay on Easter Sunday the following year. The composition was dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca, the poet and playwright whose murder by nationalist forces following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 deeply affected Poulenc.

In a series of interviews with the musicologist Claude Rostand, the composer explained that he found inspiration in García Lorca’s famous metaphor, ‘The guitar makes dreams weep’. The line appears at the head of the Violin Sonata’s Intermezzo, described by its composer in self-deprecating terms as “a sort of vaguely Spanish Andante-cantilena”. Poulenc drafted the work’s slow movement first. “Then I imagined as a finale a Presto tragico whose lively rhythmic élan would suddenly be broken by a slow, tragic coda. A fiery first movement was to set the tone.” Poulenc accompanied Ginette Neveu in the Sonata’s premiere, given at the Salle Gaveau in June 1943. He proved to be its harshest critic, revising the score six years later after declaring the original to be “an utter failure”. It appears that the composer had the violin sonatas of Brahms in mind when measuring the value of his memorial to García Lorca. Poulenc’s dismissive comment certainly did little to promote the cause of a score tinged with bitter-sweet melodies and bound together with great ingenuity and imagination.

Maurice Ravel, a shy, intensely private man, displayed his emotions in public almost exclusively through his music. “These little outbursts of flame,” observed the musicologist and composer H.H. Stuckenschmidt, “exert the strongest fascination in the study of a style that ... displays the same spotless and elegant exterior as did the outward appearance of the man who created it.” The Sonata for violin and piano

contains long periods of refined, rather reserved music punctuated by moments of full-blooded passion. The work evolved gradually between 1923 and 1927, written during Ravel’s visits to his country home in the Ile de France. “It won’t be difficult,” he wrote to his close friend, the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, “and it won’t sprain your wrist.” The composition’s perpetuum mobile, however, presents technical challenges that are, if not wrist breaking, certainly challenging. It also stands as the extrovert conclusion to an otherwise reflective work.

Ravel’s fascination with sound and tonal contrasts surfaces throughout his Violin Sonata. In the first movement, for instance, the violin and piano reveal their different strengths through characteristic melodies and accompaniment figures. The composer sought advice on matters of violin technique from Jourdan-Morhange. Their mutual passion for jazz led the violinist to encourage Ravel to cast his Sonata’s second movement as a blues. Although charmed by the harmonic and melodic flavours of the blues he heard played by the Dixieland bands in Paris in the early 1920s, Ravel was never tempted to write pastiche blues. In a 1928 lecture entitled ‘Contemporary Music’, he explained to his American audience that “while [in the Violin Sonata] I adopted this form of your music, I venture to say nevertheless that it is French music, Ravel’s music, that I have written.”

In his controversial ‘psychoanalytic’ biography of Charles Ives, Stuart Feder connects the ‘Decoration Day’ movement from the composer’s Holidays Symphony with his father and ‘personal hero’, George Ives. The junior Ives started work on the orchestral version of Decoration Day in September 1912, incorporating music from an earlier organ piece into its middle section (“the poorest part of the movement”, in the composer’s opinion) and repeatedly echoing strains of David W. Reeves’s Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard Quickstep (“as good a march as Sousa or Schubert ever wrote, if not better”). Ives appended to his score a part-fictional, part- autobiographical recollection of childhood holidays in New England, evoking the annual springtime ritual by which local towns were decorated with freshly gathered

flowers. References in the music and the prose postface to military marches and the ‘Yankee stimulant’, Reeves’s Second Regiment Quickstep, lend support to Feder’s contention that Decoration Day represents an idealised memorial to the late George Ives, “in his son’s fantasy, the greatest hero of the [American] Civil War”.

It is clear that Decoration Day is woven from the stuff of personal memories; the Reeves march, among former bandmaster George’s favourite tunes, returns throughout to haunt and finally silence Ives’s own musical thoughts. Ives included a part for ‘extra’ violin in his original composition, a quiet yet dissonant ‘shadow’ voice. The solo instrument stands at odds with the rest of the strings, usually set apart from them at the distance of a major seventh. “It should always be kept at a much lower intensity than the other parts,” Ives recorded in a footnote to his score. “It stands in the background as a kind of shadow to the other strings.” The performance direction fits neatly with Stuart Feder’s proposal that the part “may be a concrete representation of George [Ives], who played the violin ... and seemed to have been practising it during the first years of Ives’s life.”

Ives’s version of Decoration Day for violin and piano, arranged by the composer after 1919, was reconstructed by the pianist and scholar John Kirkpatrick from surviving sketches. Daniel Stepner and Kirkpatrick presented the work’s premiere in an all-Ives recital at Yale University School of Music in October 1973. It was first performed outside the United States by Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Gregorio Nardi in July 2007.

George Gershwin was among the last century’s true musical pioneers. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to poor Russian emigrants. When the Gershwins bought an upright piano, young George took to the keyboard and showed such natural talent that the family found the means to pay for formal music lessons. He revealed a natural gift for writing melodies, which eventually brought him work as a Tin Pan Alley ‘song-plugger’. Gershwin’s first published song appeared in 1916. He went on to write numbers for Broadway shows before creating his first musical, La-La-Lucille, in 1919. The following year Al Jolson’s recording of Gershwin’s Swanee proved a

mass-market hit and established its composer’s reputation as a tunesmith with the Midas touch.

In the summer of 1928, Gershwin visited Paris. During his stay he attended a performance of his Rhapsody in Blue given by French musicians and met, among other composers, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev and Berg. The trip to France left its mark on the tone poem An American in Paris; it also contributed to the expansion of Gershwin’s creative horizons, which flourished in 1934 when he began work on his opera Porgy and Bess. The work, based on DuBose Heyward’s novel about the tough lives and passionate loves of the black inhabitants of ‘Catfish Row’ in Charleston, South Carolina, received a Broadway-style production in the autumn of 1935 at New York’s Alvin Theater. Although Porgy and Bess attracted mixed reviews, songs such as the lullaby Summertime, ‘Sportin’ Life’s secular sermon It ain’t necessarily so and the heartbreaking My man’s gone now became instant hits. The Russian-born violinist Jascha Heifetz greatly admired Gershwin’s music and invited the composer to write
a concert work for him. While Gershwin’s early death prevented the delivery of a new violin piece, in 1947 Heifetz harnessed his legendary virtuosity and considerable skills as an arranger to the transcription of a half dozen numbers from Porgy and Bess for violin and piano.

Andrew Stewart


"Performed with relaxed confidence"

Paul Gent, Saturday Telegraph

“It is heartwarming to discover that a young artist’s debut CD can be as refreshing and enjoyable as this.”
Classical Music

“Gripping performances by rising star Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who plays every note with commitment.”
4*
Julian Haylock, BBC Music Magazine

" The performances by Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins are uniformly excellent throughout..."
Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review

"I love this CD. Please don't miss it."
David Mellor, Classic FM

“Waley-Cohen shows tremendously high promise”
Steven Bergman, Edge on the Net

“a delectable new disc”
JDCMB

"The way these non-American musicians treat the idiomatic American material ... is particularly refreshing."
American Record Guide

" violinist and pianist bring tremendous energy and tongue-in-cheek stylishness to the opening movement of Francis Poulenc’s Violin Sonata "
"Waley-Cohen’s performance (as well as Watkins’s) seems to unlock many hidden beauties (and a hidden sauciness, as well) in the work"
"...the release... should appeal to just about everyone."
"Urgently recommended."
Fanfare


   
   

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