Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Liddle
Guest Writer
2:00 AM 15th October 2022

Classical Music: Beau Soir: Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Poulenc

Beau Soir: Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Poulenc
Maciej Kułakowski (cello), Jonathan Ware (piano)

Debussy Sonata for Cello & Piano (arr Kulakowski); Minstrels (Prèudes Bk 1 No 12); La plus que lente; Satie Gnossiennes Nos 1 -3 (arr Kulakowski); Ravel Sonata No 2 in G major for Violin & Piano (arr Kulakowski); Pièce en forme de habanera; Poulenc Sonata for Cello & Piano.

Delphian DCD34277

Acclaimed cellist, Maciej Kulakowski, born in Gdansk in 1996, is partnered by the award-winning American pianist, Jonathan Ware, in a nicely-diversified all-French programme that includes sonatas by Debussy and Poulenc, Ravel’s second violin concerto and Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes.

Kulakowski’s warmly lyrical playing, the singing quality of his cello, the variety of his bow-strokes, the keening of his vibrato are closely enhanced by Ware’s broader pianistic sweeps and lively tempos. Together, they bring to life all the fervid longing for change of the Impressionist movement, the group of French turn-of-the-century composers intent on breaking away from musical tradition.

To them the light in everything is found in mood, atmosphere, the unpredictable outpouring of raw emotions, sadness, melancholy, the joy of life, wonder, curiosity - regarded as infinitely preferable to the controlled tone pictures of the Baroque period and the perfect harmonic and melodic progressions of late-romantic music. We hear, feel, intuit this perfectly in Beau soir - an early setting to song by Claude Debussy (1862–1918), of a poem by Paul Bourget.

Perhaps the best-known composer of the Impressionist genre, Debussy, a child prodigy, entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten and this setting was made in his teenage years. In the first of Kulakowski’s transcriptions to his own instrument, cello and piano waltz gently across the lilting melody, that evokes still waters under the roseate glow of sunset, wheat fields rippling in the balmy evening breeze of Bourget’s imagination. The tranquil mood changes dramatically in the modulation from E major to F sharp minor and, we fancy, we feel the chill of the sun disappearing suddenly on the high F-sharp.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata is a staple of the modern cello repertoire, commonly regarded as one of the instrument’s finest masterpieces. It’s also one of the most technically difficult, requiring the full range of extended techniques, pizzicato (the plucking of strings), spicatto (the bow bouncing off the string) flautando (the creation of a flute-like sound) and portamenti (the sliding from one note to another). Kulakowski comes through with admirable agility and effortless ease.

Maciej Kułakowski & Jonathan Ware 
© Kaupo Kikkas.jpg
Maciej Kułakowski & Jonathan Ware © Kaupo Kikkas.jpg
The world is indebted to the Italian pianist Aldo Ciccolini who, in the 1960s, sparked a new and intense interest in the music of Erik Satie (1866-1925), stimulating its extensive use in films of the artistic kind. Satie, the eccentric iconoclast, was ever ready with coinages for his compositional types and Gnossiennes (these days considered more suggestive of Grecian Knossos than Gnosticism, according to Caroline Potter’s excellent sleeve notes), was the name that he bestowed upon these slow plaintively playful piano pieces composed around 1890. Satie's style here might almost be said to reduce Impressionism to a series of short enigmatic phrases repeated with subtle variations in colour and harmony. Kulakowski’s transcription creates a soulfully elusive part for himself in the first three Gnossiennes. Ware’s eloquent phrasing is compellingly interpretative and suggests an obvious affinity with the hypnotic minimalism of this kind of music. Pleasingly, unlike many, he is not guilty of over-interpretation.

Another in a long line of distinguished French pianist-composers is Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), much of whose piano music is extremely difficult to play, and often presents technical and artistic challenges, though evidently not for Ware. He composed his Violin Sonata No. 2 over a 4-year period, 1923 to 1927, the attractive middle movement inspired by American jazz and blues music, which he had been exposed to in Paris, often in the company of his jazz-loving friend, the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, to whom he dedicated. We hear, too, of nights in the Cotton Club on a trip to the States, and meetings with George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, and Bix Beiderbecke, albeit after the piece had been completed.

Ravel is said to have concluded that this sonata proved the tonal incompatibility of the violin and piano. Even if that were true, we can countenance none of it in Kulakowski’s transcription for the violin’s larger and more upright cousin. It is in this ground-breaking piece that we definitively experience musically a brave new intellectual world, its epi-centre Parisian café culture, the rendezvous of composers, artists, writers, in search of a new aesthetic. And in the freedom shown by the two musicians and their bond of feeling we find the spirit of innovation still burning bright.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) stands quite apart from the rest of the programme, not just for its late compositional date of 1948. The melodic line pursued, the exuberance of expression, the refulgent tonal colour and theatrical flamboyance belong to a period very obviously post-Impressionist.

Poulenc is often assigned a place among the following generation of French composers known as Les Six, the much less well known others being Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre. Collectively, they swerve away as much from the influence of Debussy’s Impressionism as of the gravitas of German Romanticism. Instead they take inspiration from modern popular culture, the music hall, the circus and the cabaret. The third movement, the classical sonata’s scherzo, for instance, is entitled Ballabile – ‘suitable for dancing’ - and it capers and cavorts as enticingly as any scantily-clad hoofer on the Folies Bergere stage. In all four movements, Kulakowski and Ware are in perfect sync, frequently echoing each other’s phrases, palpably enjoying the theatricality of the moment.

The superb production values of Beau Soir commend it highly. It was released on the 7th of October, 2022, by Delphian, Scotland's classical music label originally founded by Paul Baxter to promote Edinburgh’s International Festival. In the 15 years of its existence, it has built up an exciting catalogue with a repertoire ranging from mediaeval music to the present day.

It whisks us on a fascinating journey from French Impressionism to the heady reaction against it.