Pierre Sancan: A Musical Tribute

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Adam Walker (flute), BBC Concert Orchestra

Conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier


CHAN 20154

It is always refreshing to flick through the list of upcoming releases each month and discover composers with whom I was hitherto unfamiliar. Such was the case with the name Pierre Sancan, who is famed in his native France but almost unknown elsewhere. This new CD from Chandos not only serves as a superlative introduction to the work of an “unsung” composer, but also makes a very convincing case that more of Sancan’s music should be committed to recordings in the future.

Described in many writings as one of the modernising voices in French music, alongside contemporaries Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux, I was prepared for quite a different offering than I experienced upon listening to the CD. If Messiaen’s idiom can broadly be described as incorporating his own interest in the sounds of the natural world as well as liturgical music, and Dutilleux in a sense represents a modernising of a quasi-impressionist colour palette, it seems to me that there is a great deal of Les Six’s influence to be found in the music of Pierre Sancan, particularly Poulenc. Indeed, there is such a lightness of touch and a truly wonderful sense of wit running through this disc (even in its darker corners) that I was left utterly bewildered as to why such approachable music should be so unduly neglected. Sancan’s intention was to reconcile contemporary performance techniques with the harmonic language of Debussy and other earlier composers, though I don’t necessarily find as many impressionistic touches here as one might expect.

The CD opens with Overture Joyeuse, a terrific curtain-raiser packed with memorable melodic material and humorous interjections. This is followed by Sancan’s substantial Piano Concerto, which was premiered by the composer himself in 1955. Here, the piano part is performed by one of Sancan’s pupils Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who has now established himself as one of the leading interpreters of Debussy of his generation. Bavouzet’s sensitivity is eminently suited to this repertoire, capturing both the beautiful quieter moments along with the more raucous humour in the piece. The first movement opens with a subdued statement of one of the major themes on the lower strings, lending an ominous feel to the first few bars. Rather more violent music follows from the orchestra in full force, before the strings harmonise the opening theme a little more gently. It is almost 3 minutes before the piano finally enters with an assertive statement of the same theme and the violent outbursts from the orchestra now seem to begin to sound humorous more than forbidding. A much gentler second idea is introduced which reaches its achingly lyrical apotheosis in the middle of the movement, hinting slightly at the beauty in store in the concerto’s upcoming slow central movement.

The aforementioned centrepiece is glitteringly beautiful and it is here that both the orchestra and soloist really shine, bringing to the fore the shimmery delicacy of Sancan’s orchestral writing whilst retaining a modicum of the darker shadows found in the opening movement. The final movement is a virtuosic showcase of orchestral and pianistic fireworks, once again with a rather more lighthearted tone, which may again call to mind Poulenc but in a marginally more modernist idiom. The percussion section has some time to shine here, while the concerto concludes not, as one might expect, with a rousing climax but with an enigmatic fading away to silence of the final movement’s rhythmic central theme. As is to be expected, Bavouzet excels in this concerto, executing the complex piano part with a lightness of touch that is wholly appropriate to the music and serves as an ideal contrast to the somewhat heavier orchestral passages. Equally remarkable is the care with which the orchestra executes the sharply contrasting textures of the work with a crispness and stylistic flair absolutely befitting the composer.

The Symphony for String Orchestra that follows in some ways occupies a similar form, though it has a slightly darker feel to my mind, and is considerably more concise. The composer’s trademark humour is still present of course, but the harmonies are perhaps a little more piquant and the overall style might call to mind Honegger and Ravel more than Poulenc.

Bavouzet makes a most welcome return as the pianist for the remainder of the tracks on the CD. First up is the delightful Sonatina for Flute and Piano, for which he is joined by flautist Adam Walker. The flute line is significantly demanding for the soloist, leaping from the instrument’s lowest to highest range of the instrument and requiring supreme breath control as well as digital dexterity. Walker is clearly more than up to the task, not only articulating each phrase with remarkable poise but also making easy work of the virtuosity demanded by the composer. This is an outstanding chamber work, exceptionally well played, showcasing the abilities of both soloists to remarkable effect and I hope making the case for this work in many more concerts.

A small selection of piano pieces concludes the CD. The Toccata for piano is a restless, virtuosic work for the solo instrument, perhaps a tad darker than some of the other works on the CD but demanding remarkable dexterity from the soloist. This is followed by outright gymnastics for the pianist with the Caprice Romantique for the left hand alone. It is one of the instances in which I’d really like to see as well as hear the work in order to attempt to grasp just how the player navigates quite an extreme range with a variety of internal voices at such speed. The superb encore piece Boîte a musique or Music Box has been performed and recorded multiple times, but it never loses its charm. The sheer delight of the piece, however, belies its cleverness, featuring a superbly witty “winding down” of the music box, with a slow rit as well as incremental lowerings of pitch, before the piece is almost literally wound up with a sprightly conclusion. Lastly, another tour de force solo work Mouvement for piano solo … and move it certainly does, at a considerable pace! Boasting extraordinary leaps between the lowest and highest extremes of the keyboard as well as rapid repeating notes, it rounds off the CD leaving the listener almost breathless just listening to it.

This is an all-round supremely entertaining CD indicating many facets of the composer’s personality, shot through with wit, warmth and clarity of sound. Bavouzet’s presence furthermore make the disc a touching tribute to his mentor as well as a compelling argument to hear more of Sancan’s work in performance and on disc. DA

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