About this Recording
8.223524 - BOELLMANN: Piano Quartet / Piano Trio

Léon Boëllmann (1862–1897)
Piano Quartet, Op. 10 • Piano Trio, Op. 19


With the passing of wealth from the aristocracy during the Revolution, French chamber music lost its splendid patronage and fell onto hard times that lasted for the next 75 years. For the most part French composers ceased to write instrumental music while the newly popularised taste found the theatre more to its liking. Of course chamber music was not entirely abandoned while opera and ballet flourished under the Empire, but from the sketchy evidence that survives, performances of instrumental music were limited to a handful of acknowledged masters such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as to Pleyel, the immensely popular Reicha and the Anglo-French Onslow.

By the mid-19th century new names, now mostly forgotten, began to appear on the scene: Gouvy, Bertini, Litolff, Léfébure-Wély, Niedermeyer and the pioneering Louise Farrenc, who did much to raise the level of instrumental and orchestral music in France. Conspicuously absent from chamber music circles were Berlioz and the still unknown Franck, Saint-Saëns went on record as saying that any French composer who tried his hand at chamber music was engaging in folly. But slowly the public’s taste changed, and by the last years of the Second Empire operatic composers such as Félicien David turned to the newly fashionable chamber music, and Saint-Saëns and Lalo began to make headway in that field.

After 1860 new French works began to be played, but even then only with difficulty, for the prevailing taste was for the established classical pieces, Saint-Saëns is to be warmly commended for arranging performances of his chamber music at his own expense, thus introducing his Piano Quintet, Op. 14, in 1860 and his First Piano Trio, Op. 18, in 1865. By the beginning of the next decade the newly burgeoning interest in chamber music came to a halt because of the Franco-Prussian War, but riding a wave of patriotism, Saint-Saëns and the Conservatoire professor Romain Bussine turned adversity to their advantage and in the bargain changed the course of musical evolution in France. Together with Fauré, Guiraud, Franck and Duparc they formed the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871. The opportunities thus afforded for performance proved a powerful incentive, and what ensued was a veritable renaissance of French music. Orchestral, dramatic and chamber works that today form the central repertoire were introduced at the Société’s concerts. In large part through Franck’s example, the chamber music literature became enriched by the turn of the century with the works of d’lndy, Chausson, Debussy, Magnard, Ravel and Roussel.

Another who would have played a prominent role, had he lived beyond his mere 35 years, was Léon Boëllmann, for he too was part of that renaissance. He was born in the Alsatian village of Ensisheim on 25 September 1862, and when the Germans annexed Alsace in 1871, he was taken to Paris. He enrolled in the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse, informally known as the École Niedermeyer after Abraham Louis Niedermeyer, who had turned it from a moribund institution into the prospering academy that produced, among others, the great Gabriel Fauré. Boëllmann studied with Niedermeyer’s son-in-law, Gustave Lefèvre, and with the organist Eugène Gigout, winning numerous first prizes and graduating with honours in 1881. He accepted the post of assistant organist at St. Vincent de Paul and was later elevated to the rank of organist. In 1885 he married Lefèvre’s daughter Louise, who was also Gigout’s niece. He went to work at Gigout’s newly established organ school and proved to be a dedicated teacher. Multitalented, he served for the Parisian journal L’Art musical as a keenly perceptive critic who signed himself “le Révérend Père Léon” or “un garçon de la salle Pleyel”. Also he gained a reputation as a fine performer and improviser, and he won recognition as a composer.

The Suite Gothique for organ, with its brilliant toccata finale, remains Boëllmann’s best known work, and for many years the Variations symphoniques for cello and orchestra was played in concert halls throughout the world. His premature death on 11 October 1897 cut short a brilliant career. His musical legacy comprises six orchestral works including a well regarded symphony, an equal number of chamber music compositions, numerous works for organ, sacred and secular choral works, a number of piano pieces and a few songs.

In the chamber music genre Boëllmann’s largest and most significant compositions are the Piano Quartet in F Minor, Op. 10, and the Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 19. Composed circa 1890 and circa 1895, both were awarded prizes by the Société des Compositeurs. Like the once popular Variations symphoniques, they are solid of technique, harmonically bold, rhythmically vital and imaginatively scored, yet spontaneously tuneful and naturally fresh. Their character is unmistakably French in the Franckian manner, and their distinctive colour arises from the meeting of Gregorian modes (most likely Gigout’s influence) and modern harmonic procedures.

The quartet follows the classical four-movement design. At the outset rich harmonies in the strings create an atmosphere of hazy, muted colour over which the piano introduces the first theme. Boëllmann characteristically cast his second subjects in broad, Franckian terms, and this one is no exception. The movement is spirited throughout, almost of a playful nature, and even fugal elements within the development arise spontaneously and remain far from any hint of the academic. In the opening pages of the Scherzo the brilliant piano part brings Saint-Saëns to mind, and the piano’s underlying arpeggios in the trio create an exquisite effect. This is sunny music, overflowing with joie de vivre. A rhapsodic, nocturnal quality infuses the Andante in three-part song form, which treats a simple, flowing melody with considerable harmonic sophistication. The faster middle section offers greater rhythmic definition as well as some sense of development. Modality imparts archaic coloration to the vigorous first theme of the Allegro finale, where the rhythmic energy is unstoppable. Everything proceeds at a breathless pace, and when the broader second subject enters after less than a minute, it seems more like a counter-theme than an idea in its own right. The development occupies nearly half of the entire movement, and in a climate of perpetual motion a profusion of ideas blossoms with seeming effortlessness. Again, all the permutations of Boëllmann’s formidable technique come across as purely spontaneous, and with unflagging verve an expanded recapitulation brings the quartet to its joyful conclusion.

A noticeable evolution separates the quartet from the trio, composed some five years later and dedicated to Vincent d’lndy. Here a change in the emotional climate is sensed immediately in the increased chromaticism, and the overall refinement of feeling is closer to the language of Chausson. The form is unusual, comprising two large parts. The first consists of a connected introduction, Allegro and slow movement; the second contains the joined Scherzo and Finale. After the introductory bars the meter shifts to 5/4 for a flowing, rhythmically free Allegro, which is followed by an Andante with occasional touches of quasi-oriental languidity. A quick, dance-like Scherzo begins the second part, and a broadly melodic trio is so integrated that the rhythmic underpinning continues without interruption. The Finale follows without pause, and the recurrence of its incisive, dance-like opening theme shows it to be a freely constructed rondo. Again the contrasting material is broadly melodic. Toward the end an andante episode interrupts the flow with a reminiscence of the slow movement, only to be dispelled by the final return of the rondo theme.

David Nelson

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