sancan musical tribute chandos

Pierre Sancan (1916-2008)
A Musical Tribute
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Adam Walker (flute)
BBC Philharmonic/ Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec. 2022, MediaCityUK Salford Manchester England
CHANDOS CHAN20154 [73]

Before hearing this disc I had not knowingly heard any music by Pierre Sancan.  But then I am not French and not a woodwind player.  But even in those fields he is not exactly well-known today.  This excellent Chandos CD is subtitled “A Musical Tribute” and is the result of pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier’s abiding admiration and gratitude to their former teacher and musical mentor.  Some brief biographical background may help.  Sancan was another of those genuinely prodigiously gifted musicians; as a student at the Paris Conservatoire he was a good enough composer to win the coveted Prix de Rome.  As a concert pianist he was good enough to record admired version of the two Ravel concerti and accompany Andre Navarra in a set of the complete Beethoven cello sonatas.  However his professional path was not easy.  As Lionel Esparza’s extended and excellent liner note explains, to ensure a steady income Sancan focussed on playing rather than composing.  However the unrelenting pressures of performing at such a level proved impossible for him to maintain so when the opportunity arose to take on a role as professor of piano at the same conservatoire in 1956 he took it.  For nearly thirty years he devoted himself to teaching piano there, developing a unique study technique along the way, with the roster of his pupils – including Bavouzet – being very impressive.  The liner booklet also includes a reminiscence by Bavouzet about the man and the teacher which is both illuminating and touching.  The description of him here could apply equally well to his music; “…Sancan was a sunny radiant character who, through his music, his kindness, his openness and largeness of spirit, his passion… inspired and enlightened so many of us.”

One thing to say straight away about this disc is just how good it is both artistically and technically.  The BBC Philharmonic is a remarkably reliable orchestra turning out polished performances of just about anything and everything.  Very occasionally I have a sense that while the polish is there the engagement with the music they play (or perhaps the person on the podium?) is less palpable.  Here they are reunited with their former principal conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and they – and he – are on crackling, scintillating, fizzing form.  No real surprise to know that in this they are matched by the playing of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.  Whether as concerto soloist, accompanist or solo pianist Bavouzet’s playing is a delight.  Clearly he is emotionally completely aligned with these works but also the manner of his playing – should this be a surprise?! – sounds so “right”, crystalline clear and articulate, dazzling when required but also with a limpid beauty and poise elsewhere.  When he is joined by Adam Walker for the Sonatine for Flute and piano exactly the same can be said for Walker’s playing.  The Chandos engineering – in standard CD format only – is equally excellent with an ideal balance between textural clarity and tonal weight.

Listening to this music with a fresh and innocent ear, I do wonder whether there are certain parallels with the likes of Malcolm Arnold in Britain who wrote complex and sophisticated music that during the post-War years which superficially did not align itself with the po-faced rigour of the avant-garde.  Because make no mistake this is absolutely brilliantly crafted, warm-hearted, extremely engaging music whether for full – often riotous – orchestra, or piano miniature.  While there is a clear sense of musical lineage from the French Impressionists via the witty craft of Ibert or Françaix, time and again I was struck by how individual this music sounds.  In part this may be because – as Bavouzet explains – Sancan’s use of harmony and musical structure was dictated as much by what appealed to his ear as any rigorous application of rule or form.  Sancan was open to the potential of using jazz harmonies and rhythms in his music – again the liner quotes him saying; “they are extremely interesting these chords!  Let us see what we can do with them”.  At the time many of his pedagogical colleagues at the conservatoire considered jazz as “soiling your soul”(!)  The orchestral works as recorded here a certain kind of kaleidoscopic riotousness with ideas and passages tumbling over each other but so attractive are those ideas and so intoxicating their presentation that academic concerns regarding form and the like fall away.

Just about two thirds of this 73:22 disc are devoted to four works with orchestra and these are placed first on the disc.  So the programme opens with the Ouverture joyeuse which does exactly what it says on the tin – 5:22 of unbridled brio and bounce.  In the biographical parts of the liner several references are made to Sancan’s bubbly and warm personality and this comes through in this work – and most of the others too.  This is the kind of work that makes me lament the fact that too rarely these days concerts begin with an overture.  It would be a perfect curtain-raiser and while challenging for the players sounds like great fun to play as well as to hear.  The innocent ear would probably guess rightly its French origins but with a distinctly individual twist.  Several characteristics reoccur across the three full orchestra works – there is a kind of fairground chaos to proceedings with musical events jostling for attention, think Ibert meets Respighi’s Roman Festivals La Befana.  Sancan is also very fond of a good trombone glissando – executed with gleeful brilliance here in all three pieces.  The Commedia dell’arte Ouverture takes this a step further with a zany fusion of scurrying neo-classical writing and a kind of comedy-clown circus music.  The brilliance and aptness of the orchestration is another delightful recurring feature.  The result is both breathless and breathtaking and really rather wonderful.

The longest single work on the disc – here lasting 28:08 – is the 1955 Piano Concerto.  Unsurprisingly Sancan wrote this as a vehicle for his own playing so perhaps even more than elsewhere this reflects the musical character and personality of the composer/pianist.  As mentioned before, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s playing here is effortlessly stylish and nonchalantly virtuosic.  After a quite extended and serious-sounding orchestral introduction the piano enters with a quietly contemplative passage – not at all the ‘big’ concertante gesture that defines many such works.  Not until around 5:00 does the tempo pick up and the vif section of the movement begins.  This is in that clear-textured neo-classical style that is reminiscent of other French music of the period.  Apparently as a player Sancan was renowned for his ability to play repeated notes – a technique he frequently exploits in his compositions starting with this concerto.  No surprise to know that Bavouzet is his master’s equal in such regard.  Perhaps more surprisingly Sancan writes an extended lyrical section which decorates the earlier thematic material in this movement where a slightly bluesy slant to the harmonies and melodic line suggests the influence/appreciation of the afore-mentioned jazz.  Certainly this is a good example of the uniqueness of Sancan’s fusion of French musical heritage and personal style and idiom.  When this section reaches an impassioned climax the movement concludes with more driving highly rhythmic passagework, a dreamy cadenza-like piano solo and a final return to the opening material.  The central Andante is another unique fusion of poised Gallic lyricism and a bluesy melancholy – its absolutely gorgeous and tremendously played here.  The finale is another circus romp brilliantly if testingly orchestrated and brilliantly executed – but after all the noise and incident the work ends with a quirky throw away phrase by the soloist.  It is an odd ending but one that already seems typical of Sancan the man and composer.  Indeed the whole work is remarkably successful and unusual – another work to add to that list of pieces richly deserving to be better known.  There is another recording released in 2004 from Jean-Philippe Collard (another Sancan pupil) and the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra under Emil Tabakov.  The distinctly odd coupling there is the warhorse of the Tchaikovsky 1st concerto.  Collard is a great player but that seems to be the misguided A&R approach of coupling the known and unknown in the hope of the latter piggy-backing into collections due to the former.

The final orchestral work is the compact (11:19) Symphonie pour orchestra a cordes.  This follows a fairly traditional three movement fast/slow/fast format into its brief time frame but again Sancan writes an incident-packed, technically demanding but richly rewarding score.  The liner quotes Tortelier as saying the music is; “full of joviality, mischief, even humour” but I must say I find this to be the most serious (a relative term for sure) work on the disc.  Given that the bulk of Sancan’s work seems to focus on either keyboard or wind music it would be interesting to know the source of this work’s inspiration.  To my ear there is a certain kinship in the opening Allegro vivo with the motoric energy of Honegger’s Symphony No.2.  The virtuosity of the writing – played with tremendous élan and verve by the BBC PO strings – makes me wonder if this was another of those commissions by a virtuoso string orchestra?  The central Andante  has a pensive sorrowing quality that is emotionally held but of concentrated power.  The closing Presto is a genuine tour de force which again sounds demanding but great fun to play – as long as you are good enough!  Spiky off-kilter accents disrupt the melodic line – perhaps again Honegger in a jazzier frame of mind is an analogy.

When approaching a disc of completely unknown music like this I tend to avoid reading anything about the works or composer beforehand.  So listening to the Sonatine pour flute et piano made me wonder how such a delightful, inventive and impressive work could be “unknown”.  Which of course it is not.  A post-listen check reveals around a dozen or so recordings (including an earlier one on Chandos) and the liner states that this is the work by which Sancan’s name remains best known – in flute-playing circles at least.  Again the amount of material and incident packed into the three movement/9:35 work is remarkable.  Flautist Adam Walker and Bavouzet are a perfect team again beautifully recorded.  Walker’s expressive but quite lean tone suits this music perfectly.  Written in 1946 when Sancan was barely out of the conservatoire himself it was written as a competition work for the same institution.  Esparaza in the liner describes this as “lucid sensitive music of great elegance” – a perfect description equally applicable to this performance.

The disc is completed by four quite brief works for solo piano.  Again checking the catalogue reveals that some of these have appeared as single items in recital programmes.  All four date from Sancan’s completion of studies through to 1950 so they are again vehicles for his own considerable pianistic talents – superbly mirrored by Bavouzet.  The 1943 Toccata is a bravura display of repeated notes that suddenly melts into a casually languorous central section before the bustling opening returns.  I can imagine Sancan playing this as a virtuosic calling-card.  The Caprice Romantique is one of those musical sleight of hand works written for left hand alone that totally deceives the innocent ear into believing at least two hands must surely be playing this piece.  It also features one of those gently melancholy melodies that French composers seem to conjure at will.  The 1:56 Boîte à musique is exactly what the title suggests – a superficially simple but technically demanding (and very appealing) evocation of a child’s music box which slowly winds down before restarting with its spring wound up again.  The closing Mouvement perfectly encapsulates much of the character and spirit of Pierre Sancan that has gone before; witty, boisterous, quirky, entertaining and warm-hearted.

I really did not know what to expect when I requested this disc.  Although Sancan does appear on quite a few discs across the catalogue this appears to be the only dedicated solely to his music.  But what a disc to be so dedicated – I cannot imagine a greater tribute performed with such skill and empathy.  The liner mentions a relatively small body of compositions but on the strength of hearing this disc I would hope very much that there will be an opportunity to hear more from these same artists.  Add a fascinating and informative liner notes full of detail and personal warmth and a recording from Chandos’ top drawer and this has turned out to be one of my listening discoveries and highlights of the year to date.

Nick Barnard

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Ouverture joyeuse
Piano Concerto (1955)
Symphony for String Orchestra (1961)
Commedia dell’arte Ouverture (1952)
Sonatina for flute and piano (1946)
Toccata (1943)
Caprice romantique (1949)
Boîte à musique (1950)
Mouvement (1946)