Reynaldo Hahn's piano music; also near and Faure

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday May 31, 2022
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Reynaldo Hahn's piano music; also near and Faure

It may always be impossible to speak of the composer Reynaldo Hahn without mentioning that for a couple years at the beginning of the 20th century he was the lover of Marcel Proust —witness this sentence. But Hahn is once again coming out of the Proust closet —and earning beyond the salons of Paris the level of artistic esteem Proust always gave him.

Hahn may even have been the stronger influence on the music-besotted Proust, who broke habit in sustaining a lifelong friendship with Hahn after their romantic relationship had faded. Some have claimed it was Hahn who proposed the idea of the "little phrase" in the "Vinteuil" sonata that is a far more binding thread within the colossal span of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" than that soggy madeleine.

Of the prodigious amount of music Hahn composed and performed, only a clutch of songs has hung on in the active repertoire. Among his music for piano, the single concerto gets more respect than performances today, and investigating his solo-piano music has led the inquisitive down the darker alleys of record labels. Pavel Kolesnikov's new CD of "Reynaldo Hahn Poemes and Valses" (Hyperion) augurs to change all that.

In times like ours, scintillating, immediately appealing music of mixed pedigree —the rags of Scott Joplin, the tangos of Astor Piazzola— have elbowed their way onto center stage in performances by top "classical" musicians who argue the exceptional quality of the fare to an audience that asks no such persuasion.

For many people, Kolesnikov's mid-pandemic Wigmore Hall recital "In Memory of Proust" would have been the introduction to Hahn's piquant collection of miniatures, "Le Rossignol Eperdu" ("The Distraught Nightingale"), where it all but stole the show.

pianist Pavel Kolesnikov  

Kolesnikov revels in the perfect fit of his sensibility with Hahn's. A savvy selection of 19 of the 53 exquisite "poems" that compromise the complete "Nightingale" makes room, between two strikingly different sets, for a half-dozen of Hahn's equally bewitching waltzes. Few musicians boast the kind of rhythmic freedom Kolesnikov lavishes on everything he plays.

He says that he loves Hahn's imperviousness to compositional trends, his clever way of saluting Hahn's unwavering obedience to his artistic heart and soul over more formal musical strictures.

His music means to be appealing, testing its listeners only with the kind of heart-breaking intimacy audiences actually crave and reward. It's music without pretense except when pretense is the point, for example in the inflations of the "noble" waltz and the excesses of its "unstrict" ("Sans rigueur"), beguiling cousin.

composer Reynaldo Hahn  

This disposition toward a modest extravagance is essential to Kolesnikov's audience-courting art. You never doubt that he wants his playing, too, to please rather than intimidate, bravado deployed to thrill rather than impress. There's even a sly, involving humor, as in the playful ferocity in the lullaby, "Berceuse feroce."

There's little flashy fingerwork on display in these wistful, enigmatic, but always characterful pieces, but the blend of seriousness and sensuality somehow makes the short items feel complete and the longer ones (only two exceed five minutes) suggestive.

Kolesnikov corrals the more plaintive, inward items into his second set, leaving the listener with a satisfying sense of the emotional depths of this music the composer said was composed, over a decade, in tears. The colors are rare and dappled, some sonorities near the limits of audibility.

He ends his survey with one of the most bewitching if also evanescent of the pieces, "Ouranos," naming Uranus, the Greek god of the heavens. It could be by Debussy; it could be by Webern; it could almost be late Beethoven —or Brahms. Kolesnikov's point is that it is, rather, the mercurial, fetching Hahn, searching music out to ensnare the searcher. On first hearing you're transported to another world.

Near and Faure
Hahn was so essential a player in his culture that there are many surviving recordings of him making music, his own and others'. Anyone searching them out will encounter, in those songs we think we know, a raspy baritone it's hard to imagine going over today - a kind of parlor Bob Dylan, but quickly as engaging.

A brave new recording, the first ever of all of Gabriel Faure's 100-plus songs, by Cyrille Dubois and his regular pianist partner Tristan Raes (Aparte) is likely to be as great an initial shock to many listeners.

Consumers (to use a coarse but applicable word) of French "melodies" are accustomed to hearing them at the ends of recital programs by opera singers. Evidence abounds that Dubois has just such an impressive, plummy sound in opera and concert settings —it's a gorgeous voice by any measure— but these new recordings represent such a radically different kind of voice production that it's tempting to call it "original-instrument" French singing, but let's not.

It's the tiredest of cliches, too seldom true, that song-singing projection of the text is paramount. Here, Dubois' being a native speaker of French is even more important than usual, since he renders so much of the vocal line as near speech as it is to singing. Unless you're French or a student of the style, and then in historical recordings, it will require adjusting.

But once acquired, it will be something reluctantly surrendered to non-native voices, however fulsome. Song after song in this collection emerges with a profile if not new, then newly telling.

By the time we get mauled by the Faure Year in 2024, we may appreciate, without reservation, Dubois' light but agile voice, fresh but not choir-boy tone, and easy yet deeply communicative singing style.

The prejudiced ear may hear acid in the tone, nasality in the diction, suspect pitch and the kind of swooping between notes recital audiences have been schooled to renounce.

But with mere openness to what these two musicians, who have spent as many years contemplating this repertoire have to reveal, you'll hunger for the next song as much as you savor the current one —not a single generic note in music that all too often goes down, and away, all too smoothly.

Reynado Hahn, Poemes & Valses, Pavel Kolesnikov, Hyperion.

Gabriel Faure, Complete Songs, Cyrille Dubois, tenor, Tristan Raes, piano, Aparte

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