James Baillieu: Reynaldo Hahn - Chamber Music & Song, Vol.1
On this new recording for Champs Hill Records, James Baillieu and friends explore the lesser-known chamber music of Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), better known principally for the unashamed Romanticism of his songs or mélodies. Regarded as a French composer, Hahn was actually born in Venezuela, returning to Paris at the age of three and showing a prodigious talent for music – entering the Paris Conservatoire aged just ten to study composition with Massenet and Saint-Saëns - and like his teachers, he worked in a strongly melodic and tonal idiom.
The main works here are a Piano Quartet and a Piano Quintet. His Quintet of 1921 has an arresting opening, with fluid piano writing and idiomatic and effective writing for the strings. It is a hugely underrated work in the repertoire. The Quartet is a very late work (1946) and smaller in scale than the quintet, but nonetheless a substantial and robust piece. The melodies are included in Hahn’s own instrumental transcriptions.
Described by The Telegraph as ‘in a class of his own’ pianist James Baillieu has been the prize-winner of the Wigmore Hall Song Competition, Das Lied International Song Competition, Kathleen Ferrier and Richard Tauber competitions. He was selected for representation by Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) in 2010 and in 2012 received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship and a Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Trust Award. In 2016 he was shortlisted for the Royal Philharmonic Society Outstanding Young Artist Award. He is joined on this disc by other musicians from the Champs Hill family: Benjamin Baker violin, Bartosz Woroch violin, Adam Newman viola and Tim Lowe cello.
- Sleeve Notes
Although Reynaldo Hahn is usually regarded as a typically French composer, he was born in Caracas in Venezuela on 9th August 1874. His German-Jewish father had moved from Hamburg to Caracas and subsequently married a local Catholic woman, but the family emigrated to Paris when Reynaldo was three years old. The youngest of twelve children, Reynaldo was musically precocious, making his debut at the age of six at a soirée hosted by Napoleon's niece, Princesse Mathilde. He sang arias by Offenbach, accompanying himself on the piano – a dual facility with which he is too glibly associated. Unfortunately, this enduring stereotyped image of Hahn singing at the piano, cigarette dangling, has obscured the more serious aspects of his considerable output. In 1885, at the age of ten, he was accepted by the Paris Conservatoire, where he would study composition with Massenet, whose fluent melodic style proved to be a lasting influence and whose kindness he would remember. Hahn began private studies with Saint-Saëns in 1895, though between 1887 and 1890 he had already completed his first song-cycle – Chansons grises. The aging Gounod also took enough interest to give him some composition lessons. In 1888 Hahn composed, as one of group of twenty songs, Si mes vers avaient des ailes – his earliest success – before, at the age of fifteen, he was commissioned to provide the incidental music for a play by Alphonse Daudet. Hahn's deep interest in literature took on a more personal dimension as he developed a close friendship with Marcel Proust, whom he had met in 1894. Hahn's own writings on music are justifiably admired.
As a conductor, Hahn became noted for his performances of Mozart, including appearances at the Salzburg Festival, and he even composed an opera entitled Mozart, based on his adolescent years. His love of Mozartian elegance is reflected in the strong Classical aspect of his own musical language. For him Mozart was the perfect musician - “an admirable combination of finesse, profundity and simplicity”. From 1934 Hahn worked as music critic for Le Figaro and in 1945, less than two years before his death, he was appointed director of the Paris Opéra.
Hahn was a non-progressive composer who, in common with many other late-Romantics, worked naturally within a tonal, strongly melodic idiom. Of the importance of structure he was fully aware: “Only form can give a piece a chance of enduring … There is in all good music an additional level which plays the role that varnish plays in a painting … The durability of the work often depends on this 'extra' quality; it's a safeguard against the damages of time.” He was averse to modernism in all its manifestations, believing Fauré – whose influence on Hahn's chamber works is often evident - to be the last great composer. Hahn's several dozen songs – or mélodies - are his best-known compositions, but in recent decades some overdue exposure of his chamber music, concertos, etc. has encouraged the elevation of his status above that of the “salon composer”. He composed the music for many stage-works, including around twenty operettas (the most often staged being Ciboulette), eight ballets, and incidental music for more than twenty plays. His large output also includes two 1930's film scores, orchestral music (including Le Bal de Béatrice d'Este for wind section, two harps and piano), concertante works (a concerto each for violin, cello, piano, and one for wind quartet with strings), chamber music including two string quartets, a large quantity of solo piano music, choral works ranging from an oratorio to many shorter pieces, and a few cadenzas for Mozart concertos. As Hahn himself recognised, he was a petit maître, rather than a big, ground-breaking musical personality, but we should not use his modesty as an excuse for lazy pigeon-holing.
Hahn's Third Piano Quartet is a very late work dating from 1946, not so large-scale as the Piano Quintet but nevertheless a work of stature. The substantial opening movement begins with a melody of wistful charm, before the strings' restatement is soon enhanced by a decorative piano part. A more robust, even turbulent character becomes more evident, if intermittent, though Hahn's enviable melodic gift leaves the most lasting impression. While developing his material, Hahn employs some close violin/cello dovetailing of a short melodic figure. On its return, the opening theme is neatly decorated and subsequently some augmentation leads to a final stirring of passion before the movement ends calmly. The tiny scherzo is nimble and graceful à la Mendelssohn, with a witty pizzicato ending. The slow movement reveals a more overtly romantic, even languorous aspect of the composer's musical personality, the expansive melodic lines supported by a gently undulating piano part. In the central section Hahn introduces - with typical economy - a more intense expression, tinged with deeper sadness. This slow movement is among Hahn's finest achievements. With the less searching finale we return to Hahn's most amiable manner. Here, once more, he shows a remarkable ability to breathe fresh life into the simplest, most unpromising ideas, without a hint of banality. Gradually the thematic material reveals an affinity with that of the first movement, crystallising into a clear recall of the opening melody. Yet, typically, Hahn does not seek any dramatic effect, but rather makes his point unobtrusively, almost nonchalantly – as is equally true of his craftsmanship in general.
À Chloris is one of the most popular of Hahn's songs – one gem among many. It has been belittled as mere pastiche, but most other works of this kind lack the touching sincerity of this utterly charming song, based on a poem by the 17th-century Théophile de Viau.
The Vocalise-Étude (marked Andante and subtitled Souvenir de Constantinople) originated as a Paris Conservatoire competition piece for wordless voice, in which typical aspects of technique – smoothness in scale passages, then semitone intonation – are exercised. Its middle section, an Allegretto in 2/4 based on a folk-like melody, leads to a shortened reprise of the scale-pattern music from the opening section.
Si mes vers avaient des ailes, an 1888 setting of Victor Hugo included in Twenty Songs, Book I, was the work which brought early recognition, soon becoming a favourite in Parisian salons. Apparently, the teenage Hahn had already found his own voice. It is performed here in a transcription for cello and piano by Hahn himself.
Hahn's Nocturne in E flat major for violin and piano (1906) is a typically appealing Andantino which generates a passion probably surprising to those who dismiss Hahn as a lightweight. How many composers could achieve such a poetic conclusion with merely a chain of ascending chromatic scales?
Hahn's Piano Quintet in F sharp minor dates from 1921. The opening movement, marked Molto agitato e con fuoco and rich in melodic material, begins with a staccato forte chord in the piano – a detail which not only seizes the attention like a pistol-shot but also injects extra rhythmic impetus into the launch of the opening theme. The equally attractive and memorable second principal theme, marked Dolce, amoroso, gives way to a return of the opening theme, then a new idea in sharply dotted rhythm. Further, gently contrasting material (calme) is introduced. The piano part is always fluent and often busy, but well integrated and never overbearing. Hahn's writing for both strings and keyboard is always idiomatic and beautifully effective. Exploring all the diverse material of the exposition, the substantial development section eventually recedes into a Calmando, then a Più tranquillo in which Hahn reflects upon an inversion of the opening theme. In the recapitulation the original material is considerably modified and includes expansive, forte treatment of the second theme. The essential lyricism is sustained throughout this long movement, but the ending is emphatic. More inward in character, the central movement begins in C sharp minor and 9/8, the unadorned piano part contributing to the mood of grave dignity. There is a clear, presumably intentional reference to Fauré's Élégie – the same six notes and harmonisation but with different rhythm. The clouds lift for a contrasting section in F major and 2/2 – again marked Dolce amoroso, as an easeful melody is accompanied by gentle piano syncopation. The return of the opening is very dramatic (Più animato) but calm lyricism is soon restored. In this reprise of the first section Hahn subtly combines the opening theme with the theme of the episode, played pianissimo by first violin. The untroubled F sharp major finale - Allegretto grazioso - begins with innocent simplicity and continues in much the same vein. In a Più animato section, Hahn combines the prevalent rhythmic pattern with a recall of the opening theme of the quintet played by first violin, its initial fire now tempered. This occurs completely naturally, almost incidentally, rather than announcing itself “in bold” as an important cyclic feature. Subsequently both the second subject and the melody from the episode in the central movement return equally unostentatiously. A calmando passage leads to a false recapitulation in F major, but the return journey into F sharp major is negotiated without fuss for the conclusion of this delightful work. How such captivating music as Hahn's chamber works for piano and strings has remained generally unknown is a mystery.
- Press Reviews
"Both (the Quartet and Quintet) are beautifully done...there's a strong sense of ensemble here, and an instinctive give and take between its members and a real feel for both the music's elegance and poise and the altogether darker emotions that lurk beneath the surface."
"Too little attention has been paid to Reynaldo Hahn’s chamber music of late, so this beautiful CD, marking the start of what promises to be a major reappraisal, is an important addition to his discography"
"With their tonal, romantic mood and luscious melodies, these works might have been written a century earlier. Beautifully played here by the pianist James Baillieu, with Benjamin Baker and Bartosz Woroch (violins), Tim Lowe (cello) and Adam Newman (viola), they’re a pleasurable discovery."
- THE OBSERVER
"They play the music with real affection and sophistication, bringing out the links to previous composers whilst giving Hahn the beauty of line and flexibility of phrasing that he needs. In the quartet & quintet, the two slow movements have a superb time-stops-still quality with the players highlighting the richness of Hahn's harmonic language"
- PLANET HUGILL
"Hahn may have been a man out of his time by then, but by no means out of ideas. I recommend you get this volume and apply your ears to its beauties."
- GAPPLEGATE MUSIC REVIEW
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