Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lux Ruris - Jean Huré's Piano Quintet

Impressionism has been disturbingly absent from this blog, so much so that the closest I can find in the back issues is Abel Decaux, and saying his music defies categorization is the understatement of the decade.  Oddly enough, this article is also something of a One-Off, as Jean Huré (1877-1930) didn't write much music and the works of his to get pro recordings can be counted on two hands.  There's a strange class of 20th century French composers who make up for their modest oeuvres with the quality of their work, and though I haven't found anything by Huré to equal Decaux's Clairs de Lune he did write some rich and enchanting works, all in a twilight-drenched Impressionism that can't help but evoke his native Breton landscape*.  He was recently revived in the news by saxophonist Javier Oviedo as part of his project to revive all the Impressionist saxophone pieces commissioned by Elise Hall, who commissioned Debussy's Rapsodie for saxophone and orchestra.  A piece of Huré's work, Andante, and be heard here, and I think it's lovely, but in reviewing his works for this article I found one piece in particular stood out - his grand, single-movement Piano Quintet, on of the finest French works in the genre and in need of a revival beyond its stellar 2010 recording.

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Much of Huré's work is inspired by Breton culture and folk music, and his Quintet begins with this simple, determined elaboration on modal elements, reminiscent of the tunes immortalized in his 7 Chansons de Bretagne.  This earnest undulation forms the backbone of the piece, a bucolic burbling that floats by on effortless, preternatural class.  Resurrecting folk music is a natural fit for Impressionist writing, with its emphasis on modal writing and valuing static harmonic swaths over functional tonal movement.  Tension and release are modern contrivances - folk music is eternal and evokes the infinite expanse of simple society, or at least the kind of stability that is so valued in small-scale societies.   Huré doesn't lock his germ cell up in a strict structural vision, but rather drapes ornaments across it freely, at times as if he wrote the piece in one go like Sorabji.  There are moments once things get cooking that invention overtakes him and five disparate elements are joyously fighting for exposure -

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- as if he just couldn't stand to not use some exciting piece of orchestration or melody, pacing and restraint be damned.  There is a firm sense of arc and pace, though, and while the piece consists of a single movement there are clearly-defined, movement-like sections, an admissible method in Impressionism's anti-Germanic revolt against formalism.  That backbone keeps coming back, but it never feels like a proper subject, as it has no melodic trajectory - it's more akin to a texture, like a golden thread woven through a large tapestry.   Huré never lets modernism overtake the piece, and his use of new-fangled techniques is natural and unforced.  For example, during an interlude he employs a limited aleatoric method, whereby a soloist floats a piacere across an a piacerely repeating background -

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- which is a familiar idea in jazz (vamping), as well as Classical cadenzi, but this was an early use of it with a complex background texture.  His notational method leaves something to be desired, but what can you expect from a guy who grew up without any previous examples like it from which to work?

Huré also had a gift for melody, and some truly memorable ones come up in the Quintet, such as this harrowing minor line from past the work's halfway point:

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At fortississimo with a driving piano platform, this is the kind of searing, red-blooded melody that should show up in the climax to a great serious opera, like Boris Godunov or Tosca.  The stinger is that this never shows up again, aside from a recap at the fifth a couple measures later.  There are so many gorgeous moments in the quintet that are so fleeting, such as an ornament in an arpeggio or the way a handful of notes interlock sweetly in a passing phrase, that at times the listener is gripped with the need to pull Huré through the veil of death and force him to repeat that kernel of gold.  It's the kind of writing that rewards repeated listening, as so much detail is present and yet able to melt into the air, leaving the listener with a cornucopia of moments to uncover.  My favorite moment may be in the coda, where the piano, present throughout the piece, fades to leave a masterful quartet passage in the strings, leaping by fourths with high viola and cello straining in pianissimo, a passage that would be twinkling if not for the desperation in its voice. 

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This is followed directly by a perfectly tragic 16 bars in the piano:

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The piece ends as it began, in tranquility and quiet, a sunset to mirror the sunrise of the opening 2nd violin.  The Quintet is dedicated to George Enescu, Romania's musical champion and author of a 1907 String Octet that became the toast of the town (Paris, that is) while Huré was writing his piece.  That piece was defined by its evocation of expansive Earthscapes, and Huré plays that game to win.  It's the kind of music that makes one want to become a hermit in the Old Country, living by the seasons and drinking eternity's nectar.  My talking about it can't possibly replicate the experience of hearing the thing, so in  Huré's honor we should all get the score here and listen to it below this paragraph.  Whether or not you delve deeper into his work can't stop you from hearing what is probably his masterpiece, a glorious fin-de-siècle triumph and probably the finest Impressionist piano quintet.  Let it sweep you down the river as gentle and raucous as it may.


*Would his music reminded you of Brittany if I hadn't just told you that was where he was from?  It's like playing Sibelius to non-Finns and telling them Sibelius is Finnish, and BAM! - they're soaring across fjords like nobody's business.  Composers aren't travel documentaries, for cripes's sake.

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