Gabriel Pierne's talents as an organist, composer and conductor made him a prominent musical artist in France in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was Pierne who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky's "Firebird," with the Ballets Russes in 1910, and he premiered other major works by his countrymen, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, with his own orchestra. His primary focus was as a conductor, which is one reason that his own music was overshadowed by other well-known composers of the day, including Maurice Ravel and Albert Roussel. Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, who officially takes the helm of the BBC Philharmonic in the 2011-2012 season, helps brings this neglected French composer into the spotlight with a sparkling new recording of his works.
Pierne's charming "March of the Little Lead Soldiers" opens this new recording, followed boldly by his C minor Piano concerto. Pierne was Jules Massenet's top student at the Paris Conservatory. He won every prize imaginable, including the Prix de Rome, which allowed him to study in Rome for three years. He wrote this piano concerto shortly after returning to Paris. The opening chords melt into the orchestral weave before launching into the sweeping first movement. French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet offers an athletically powerful, yet emotional performance. The second movement is a delight with its impish rhythms, and the nimble orchestration complete with trumpet and horn making it even more playful. Bavouzet's agility at the keyboard makes the brilliant piano writing sparkle.
For something from the other end of the spectrum, listen to Gabriel Pierne's "Divertissements sur un Theme Pastoral" ("Divertimento on a Pastoral Theme.") This work was written in 1931 for the composer's Orchestre Colonne, which explains the virtuoso scoring. Pierne was no innovator, but he liked to keep up with the times. In this piece, we hear his fascination with jazz and the music hall. We hear contagious dance-like rhythms, and tight, harmonic scoring that even includes a saxophone solo.
In the final two works on this recording, Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena is fully in his element as he leads the BBC Philharmonic in two suites of Pierne's incidental music for "Ramuntcho," a story set in the Basque country. The hero returns to his village after serving in the military, only to find his fiancee is now confined in a convent. The young woman dies, torn between the choice she must make between God and her lover. It's a melodramatic tale told with fantastic orchestral colors true to the Basque region. In the final movement of this music, it's almost as though the sad story is told in reverse. It begins with a mournful march. Then the mood gradually brightens, ending on a joyful note.
Gabriel Pierne was highly respected as a French musician of the late Romantic and early twentieth century. His fame rested primarily on his reputation as a conductor. With this new collection of rarely heard orchestral works Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic bring this composer out of the shadows and into the limelight where he belongs.