Aloÿs Fornerod, Gabriel Fauré
Oxana Shevchenko, Emmanuel Siffert, Orchestre de l’HÉMU Lausanne
BCV Concert Hall, HÉMU Lausanne, 2015-12-05
2016-08-20 — Brushed up for better readability
2016-08-29 — Added link for Fornerod CD with live recording from concert
2017-05-25 — Added a post-scriptum on Fornerod’s piano concerto
Introduction — About Aloÿs Fornerod
While looking around for concerts to visit and review, I ran into this one, featuring a composer which at best seemed remotely familiar. So, I started looking around in order to find out more about Aloÿs Fornerod (1890–1965): Fornerod’s name is essentially unknown in the German-speaking area, let alone in the Anglo-Saxon or more distant countries (Wikipedia only has an entry in its French section). I suspect that even in France he is rarely played. His “home turf” was the French-speaking part of Switzerland (Suisse romande).
In my Web search, I ran into a harsh, destructive CD review “Fornerod Choral, Symphonic and Instrumental Works”, posted in Gramophone 3/2002, culminating in a statement “I must regretfully report that these three discs constituted the most unpleasurable listening I’ve experienced for some time. Unpleasurable‚ not unpleasant…“. If his music was that bad, why would people in the Suisse romande want to perform his music in concert, still? I started to be curious…
Aloÿs Fornerod — Vita
Aloÿs Fornerod received his first musical education (violin, theory) at the Conservatory in Lausanne (1899 – 1916), in the years 1909 – 1911 he also took classes with Auguste Sérieyx, Nestor Lejeune, and Vincent d’Indy, at the Schola Cantorum de Paris. Starting in 1914 he was a music critic for the Tribune de Lausanne. For 3 years he played in the Orchestre symphonique de Lausanne.
The biggest part of his career he spent as teacher at the Institut de Ribeaupierre in Lausanne, and at the Conservatoire de Lausanne et de Fribourg. Between 1954 and 1965 he also was director in the latter institution. His compositorial oeuvre covers over 70 works, such as piano, chamber and orchestral music, works for choir, and music for the stage. He has significantly influenced numerous composers in the Suisse romande.
Aloÿs Fornerod — Legacy
Aloÿs Fornerod’s legacy (manuscripts, scores, recordings) is maintained by his family. A number of recordings of his works are available through Soundcloud. These are mostly or entirely legacy recordings of moderate quality, see also below.
I should note that I’m not in a position to judge Fornerod’s oeuvre, neither as a whole, nor even in substantial parts. I merely prepared myself for the two works played in this concert. These may or may not be representative for the rest of his compositorial output. But it is definitely safe to state that he not one of the really big composers, and it would be a mistake to compare him to the big names in the first half of the 20th century.
How Fornerod Positioned Himself
On top of his “overall level as a composer”, Fornerod distinctly viewed himself as a part of the francophone world / culture circle, i.e., he consciously ignored influences from German-speaking parts of the world, or from that part of Switzerland even. At best, one can relate his music to that of contemporary French composers.
This concert indicated that indeed he did react to the output of other, French composers of his time, but at the same time, he stayed “close to people”, integrating folklorist elements, as well as film music into his works. None of this limits his value as a composer. Though, it may make him different from colleagues who were focusing or restricting themselves to the “serious side” of their profession.
Legacy in Recordings
In view of the above harsh critique, one should also consider that Fornerod’s oeuvre is rarely played at all these days. Recordings are mainly available from historic archives (e.g., the archives maintained by the composer’s family). These may be of limited, maybe questionable quality. They are typically not comparable to recent recording and performance quality / standards in today’s CD market. I suspect that a considerable portion of these archives dates back to the composer’s lifetime. Many or most of them must be radio recordings.
Judging Fornerod from these old recordings alone may be unfair; concerts and new recordings should help doing justice to Aloÿs Fornerod’s compositorial oeuvre.
The Concert in This Year’s Celebrations
The concert that I attended was one of several over the course of 2015, in memory of the composer’s death 50 years ago.
Orchestra and Venue
The concert took place in the newly built concert hall of that conservatory. We heard the orchestra of the Haute École de Musique (Orchestre de l’HÉMU) in Lausanne. That ensemble is a fair-size body with 80 – 100 musicians / pupils. The players were all young, of course. There were somewhat more female than male members. The orchestra (and the Steinway D grand piano) took up more than half the venue. The audience part was a mere 128 seats. The venue was not sold out in this Saturday-afternoon event, but filled reasonably well.
The venue features clear, but relatively dry acoustics. But the conductor, Emmanuel Siffert (*1967 in Fribourg), has done an excellent job at balancing the sound of the orchestra and adjusting the articulation and dynamics to the acoustics of the venue.
Fornerod: „Prométhée enchaîné“, Pièce symphonique pour grand orchestre, op.34
The first piece in the program was Fornerod’s „Prométhée enchaîné“ (chained Prometheus). The program called this “overture”, but the real subtitle is „pièce symphonique pour grand orchestre“ (symphonic piece for big orchestra). Indeed, it’s a composition for a very rich orchestral setting, not an introduction for an opera or similar stage production.
How it Sounds
I would call this a moderately modern composition, mostly atonal, moderately dissonant. The closest relation / remotely comparable music that I can think of might be works of the late French expressionism. To me, this music is a good example for Fornerod taking up archetypical elements from film music. Some parts remind me of music from Sergei Eisenstein‘s famous films. Maybe for such a young genre one should rather talk of phenotypical elements?
The music is fairly pictorial / illustrative — though I prefer not to think too closely about the details from the relevant parts of the Prometheus saga in Greek mythology! It is not an overture in the strict sense. But with that genre it shares the feature that it is not a thematically closed composition. It is rather a loose sequence of segments with varying / different motifs — some more melodic, others more rhythmic. There are several build-up phases / waves, the last one almost dramatic, but abruptly transitioning into a p, then fading away into silence.
One may object that the instrumentation lacks richness and finesse, that it isn’t nearly comparable to the refinement in the instrumentation of compositions by well-known French composers of that time (prior to and during WWII). But in my opinion, Emmanuel Siffert has done an excellent job in balancing and attenuating the roughness in Fornerod’s wind instrument setting, and in rounding off the sound.
This is of course also owed to the young musicians in the orchestra (all pupils of the conservatory). Their playing was focused and well-disciplined. As stated, I only have limited experience with that composer. But still I claim that this piece reflects Fornerod distinct, personal style.
Fornerod: Piano Concerto, op.29 (1944)
Aloÿs Fornerod wrote his Piano Concerto, op.29, in 1944. There is a recording in the Fornerod archives, played by Jacqueline Blancard (1909 – 1994), accompanied by the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne under the direction of Victor Desarzens (1908 – 1986). This recording was made in Lausanne on 1962-10-29, still during the composer’s lifetime. It’s a recording of very limited quality, with rather unbalanced sound. I’ll refer to this interpretation further below.
Here, the concerto was performed by the pianist Oxana Shevchenko (Оксана Шевченко, born in Almaty, Kazakhstan). Oxana had just successfully concluded her education at the HÉMU in Lausanne in May 2015, with Jean-François Antonioli. This followed studies in Almaty, at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow (piano with Elena Kuznetsova and Sergey Kuznetsov, chamber music with Tigran Alikhanov, and accompaniment with Irina Kirillova), and at the Royal College of Music in London (with Dmitry Alexeev).
Oxana Shevchenko played her part — which is not trivial, to say the least — masterfully, fluently, mostly with a smooth touch, and with distinct, diligent agogics. Her playing was clear and transparent. In the louder segments, Oxana avoided overloading the acoustics of the venue.
About the music: if one wanted to criticize something about the first movement (Ouverture) as a composition, that would be the large number of thematic complexes. These make it hard for the listener to get an idea about the structure of the piece. At least, the first theme returns towards the end of the movement, in some kind of recapitulation section.
Several of the short themes feature a popular folk tone. Some are so catchy that one wouldn’t want to stick with them for longer intervals. These tunes were sometimes set against or illustrated by a virtuosic, harmonically contrasting piano accompaniment. I did not find the music unattractive at all. I also found the lyrical, sometimes charmingly whispering segments quite pleasing. No, not unpleasurable at all!
II. Air grave
The second movement (Air grave) is mostly restrained in its emotions, but not too melancholic. It`s simpler in its thematic structure, and easier for the listener to capture than the Ouverture. It features nice, contemplative dialogs between the piano and a saxophone, with woodwinds, or with muted horns. As a composition, I would rate this movement higher than the first one, particularly in this interpretation, where Emmanuel Siffert successfully avoided the dominance of the saxophone sound. He was able to balance the orchestra. In the archival recording mentioned above, the movement sounds like a single, oversimplified dialog between the saxophone and the piano.
III. Finale en rondeau
The last movement is a Rondo (Finale en rondeau) and illustrates an important component in Fornerod’s compositorial oeuvre: the influence of popular folk tunes. Melodies and motifs in this movement brought back memories of broadcasts from events such as the Fête des Vignerons in Vevey (an event that takes place once per generation only).
These themes are really good, quite beautiful, catchy, and the accompanying piano part is sometimes lyrical, but mostly very virtuosic. Oxana Shevchenko played this master- and playfully, almost dance-like, with differentiated dynamics and articulation; she never lost momentum in this movement, also across the many tempo changes, avoiding any lengths. I wasn’t alone in liking this music and its excellent interpretation: in reward for the long applause, the artists repeated the third movement.
A Post-Scriptum (2017-05-25)
I just listened to the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in D minor, FP 61 (1932) by Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) — a work which I hadn’t known before. I now realize how close to Poulenc’s second movement (Larghetto, B♭ major) Aloÿs Fornerod’s Air Grave is (in its expression, the melodies, the atmosphere). That’s a very interesting cross-link! Needless to say: Poulenc’s concerto is very interesting, excellent, even enthralling in the fast movements, and definitely worth a listen!
Interpretation and Performance
As stated above, Fornerod’s composition is not comparable to the big, popular highlights of the last century, such as Rachmaninoff’s or Prokofiev’s concertos. But it still deserves an honorable place at least in the Swiss music scene. One should not automatically assume that the recordings in the Fornerod archives are reference performances, even though they are and remain valuable documents.
I have listened to the archive recording mentioned above before attending this concert. Particularly in the aftermath, that 1962 recording sounds poorly engineered, and musically stiff, limited, lacking flexibility. Oxana Shevchenko’s interpretation was more flexible, free and differentiated in many ways (particularly in agogics and dynamics). In her interpretation, Fornerod’s concerto really made sense to me — throughout, but particularly in the last movement. One should also note that Oxana played this by heart. That effort deserves recognition, as she is unlikely to perform this concerto many times in her career!
Gabriel Fauré: Suite “Pelléas et Mélisande”, op.80
The concert program ended with the four movements from the Suite “Pelléas et Mélisande”, op.80 by the French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924). This suite is derived from the incidental music to the stage play “Pelléas et Mélisande” by Maurice Maeterlink. Fauré’s composition was first orchestrated by his pupil Charles Koechlin (1867 – 1950). Fauré later returned to the composition and re-orchestrated four of the movements for the Suite:
- Prélude (Quasi Adagio)
- La Fileuse (Andantino quasi Allegretto)
- Sicilienne (Allegretto molto moderato)
- La Mort de Mélisande (Molto Adagio)
This version (published 1909) was played in the concert. A fifth piece (number III), La Chanson de Mélisande (“The King’s three blind daughters”), is typically omitted (also in this concert). Fauré did not integrate it into the orchestrated Suite — it only exists in Charles Koechlin’s instrumentation.
Here now, the focus was again on the orchestra, which could demonstrate its abilities. Indeed, it presented a very good performance, despite the dry acoustics of the venue. I particularly liked the horns and the lyrical, soft sound of the clarinets in the Prélude. In La Fileuse (the spinner), the performance of the “spinning wheel triplets” in the violins and the violas were clean, the coordination in the transitions was very good. The overall balance was excellent, with very good control of the dynamics.
The well-known Sicilienne featured excellent flutes, but also all woodwind and brass instruments in general performed very well. The final movement, La Mort de Mélisande, developed lots of pathos, almost reminding of Wagner (but of course not with all the Wagner horns that accompany the funeral in Siegfried). Throughout the concert, I definitely also liked the string section, even if in a conservatory orchestra they can’t match the perfectly homogeneous sound of the strings in world-class ensembles.
Fauré’s Suite not only demonstrated the abilities of the orchestra. It also made it clear that Fornerod is not in the same league in the area of composition technique in general, and in refinement in the instrumentation in particular. Still, it is refreshing and more than honorable that through this concert, Fornerod’s largely neglected music has received renewed attention. It is a valuable part of Swiss culture, of the culture of the Suisse romande in particular: thanks to all participants for this effort!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
A CD with the two compositions by Aloÿs Fornerod (live recordings from this concert), along with vocal and organ works by the same composer (see the backside image below), is about to be released (September 2016):
Choeur de l’HÉMU — Jean-Pierre Chollet
Oxana Shevchenko, piano
Orchestre de l’HÉMU — Emmanuel Siffert
Claves Records, CD 1614 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2016
Booklet: 35 pp. fr/de/en
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—