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Boëllmann Léon (1862-1897)

Biography of Boëllmann Léon:

The Frenchman Leon Boëllmann was born in Ensisheim, Upper Alsace, in 1862, a little over a month after Claude Debussy was born, but, unlike his contemporary, Boëllmann's career was much shorter (he was only 35 when he died) and pursued to far less original degree. In this regard, Boëllmann's main work as an organist may have contributed to the traditional cast of almost all of his compositions - not that they do not sound other than works of their time, but he was content to use the established musical language of his day rather than seek to create a new one, as did Debussy. Despite his premature death, Boëllmann led a prolific life as a composer - he left 68 published works, many of them collections of organ pieces. He was also noted as a critic and a organist of no mean repute. The centenary of Boëllmann's death affords a good opportunity to reassess this fine composer, whose music many feel has been somewhat unjustly neglected. One may search in vain, as we have indicated, for profound originality in his music, but we will have to go some way to encounter music so well written, so excellently crafted in its structural aspects, or so direct yet individual in its genuine musical appeal as his. Indeed, it is often his sense of structure which is the more unusual characteristic in his work, as we find in his Variations Symphoniques - taking César Franck's similarly-titled masterpieces of 1886 as its formal starting-point. Boëllmann composed five original chamber works, the three he wrote for cello and piano are recorded on GMCD 7135. These are the Suite opus 6 of 1890, which here receives its world premiere recording, the Deux morceux opus 31 (1896) and the large-scale Sonata for Cello and Piano opus 40 of 1897. Together with a number of transcriptions by the composer himself and by his disciples, and the important Variations Symphoniques opus 23 of 1893 for cello and orchestra (recorded here in Boëllmann's own version for cello and piano) there is no doubt that his contribution to the cello repertoire in the 1890s was the most important of any French composer. Had Boëllmann lived a normal span there is no knowing what he could have added further to the repertoire of the cello, his favourite instrument after the organ. A glance at the titles of the movements of the compositions of Boëllmann on GMCD 7135 will confirm that he was a composer of traditional cast, yet his harmonic sense was far from ordinary. In his most famous work, the Suite Gothique opus 25 (originally for organ), we find an overall tonality - C major/minor - but used more as a point of departure and return, rather than as a region which of itself will generate symphonic treatment. So popular did this work immediately become, that Boëllmann was under some pressure to transcribe several of the four movements for other instruments. The Menuet, the second movement, was transcribed for cello and piano by Léon Rogues, and the third movement, Prière à Notre Dame, by Boëllmann himself. On this album, these are the world premiere recordings of these versions. The Suite for Cello and Piano was published in 1890, a year often given as that of composition, although evidence suggests it was fully sketched some years before. Like almost all of Boëllmann's cello works of the 1890s - and those of many other French composers of the period - the superlative cello-playing of Joseph Hollmann (1852-1926), the great Belgian cellist, was a significant source of inspiration. The titles of the four movements of the Suite indicate that they may be performed separately, as occasionally they are, but when - as in this instance - we hear the Suite in toto, the listener can appreciate Boëllmann's thematic relationships more subtly, although there is no overall tonality. The first movement, in F sharp minor, Impromptu, is an extended sonata structure with two main subjects distinguished by fluent development. The second movement is a gently-flowing Nocturne in G major, with a haunting theme which rises to a noble climax. The third movement, a beautiful waltz-like Serenade, in D major, has the tonality approached by an oblique route in the piano introduction, the figuration of which comes to play an important role later on. The waltz itself is a simple, rather wistful and haunting tune, given to the cello, the piano decoration around it providing a filigree counterpoint, leading to a delicious coda. The last movement is a Romance in D flat - a simple structure, but a highly satisfying one, as the main theme is variedly repeated to notable effect, ending the work in the cello's highest register. If the Suite is a notable achievement for a composer carly in his career, with Boëllmann's Variations Symphoniques we encounter one of the major works for cello by any French composer of the period. It may not be too much to claim that this is, like the later Cello Sonata, an unjustly neglected masterpiece. In some respects, as alluded to earlier, the work may owe something to Franck's manner of thematic transformation, but it stands fully by itself as an utterly coherent and enthralling composition. The Variations Symphoniques is centred upon the key of D minor, at first, but finally arriving at a golden D major by way of related keys. This is achieved in a quite beguiling manner, yet it is the spontaneous and seemingly effortless flow of melodic variation which is a most immediately striking aspect of the work. In turn, the theme on which it is based - heard at the outset, dramatically intoned by the cello - has a double character, created from interrelated fragments which, while lending themselves admirably to variation treatment, nonetheless form an extended and compelling theme. Detailed comment is unnecessary on such an integrated and organic work, other than to note the composer's assured and commanding use of his material. Boëllmann's Cello Sonata in A minor appeared in 1897, the year of the composer's death, and is dedicated to Jules Delsart (1844-1900), the French cellist who was the first to play César Franck's Sonata in the version for cello. The Boëlllmann Sonata shares much of the same key as the Franck, and a cross-thematicism betraying an influence of the older Belgian master, but is a fully-mature and individual work. It is an expansive Sonata, in three movements, the first of which has a slow introduction, Maestoso, in two part, initially modulating to D minor before the movement proper - Allegro con fuoco - gets under way, in A minor. This is marked also by a change of time-signature to 6/8, yet the thematic transformation (using material from the introduction), notable throughout the Sonata, is already set in train. The movement exudes a powerful momentum which arrives at the remarkable coda, and changes to A major for the second subject recapitulation and a reminiscence of the introduction. The second movement, mainly in D minor but ending in D major, alludes to the introductory ideas in a new light, as a moderately-paced Intermezzo, before the extended and brilliant finale is upon us. Marked Allegro molto, this moves ever brighter in tone, and reaches an extended passage in E major before the pull of A minor - stronger than ever - causes the Sonata, the themes now revealed as having a common source, to end this enthralling composition strongly and defiantly.

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