André Jolivet and ‘l’atmosphère tellurique’ in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited KingdomDebussy, Jolivet: Marc Coppey (cello), Jarosłav Augustyniak (bassoon),  Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Chamber Choir (women’s voices), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Pascal Rophé (conductor), BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 2.12.2011 (GPu)

Debussy, Nocturnes
, Cello Concerto No.2
, Bassoon Concerto
, Symphony No.3

The work of André Jolivet was the subject of a study day on 2nd December in the Department of Music of Cardiff University, a day which included a lunchtime concert of chamber works and which was richer for the presence and contributions of the composer’s daughter, Christine Jolivet-Erlih. The day was rounded off by this concert, largely given over to orchestral works by Jolivet, which was prefaced by conversation between Christine Jolivet-Erlih and Christine Rae, Senior Lecturer in Music in Cardiff and an authority on Jolivet (as evidenced, for example, by her essay ‘Myth and Mysticism in Jolivet: Musical Magic Realism?’ published in the Cahiers rémois de musicologie, (December, 2004) and ‘Jolivet on Jolivet: an Interview with the Composer’s Daughter’ in The Musical Times, cxlvii, 1894 (Spring 2006), 5-22).

The programme began with a piece by a figure one might reasonably describe as one of Jolivet’s musical grandfathers, Debussy. In the pre-concert interview Christine Jolivet-Erlih told us that her father had much admired Debussy’s work (though he apparently couldn’t take to Pelléas et Mélisande, more because of the libretto than the score. The Nocturnes (written in the years between 1897 and 1898) are, amongst other things, particularly striking in their use of orchestral colours, and it is not hard to imagine that as one of their dimensions particularly likely to appeal to Jolivet. Jolivet is a composer in whose works one hears echoes and analogies with many composers – including his teacher Varèse, Bartok, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Milhaud and many others. One can, of course, choose to look at this in at least two ways – that he is a magpie eclecticist without a voice of his own or that he is an accomplished synthesiser whose syntheses (for he does indeed have a range of compositorial voices) is underpinned by a distinctive musical vision. I haven’t listened systematically to a great body of Jolivet’s work (indeed I was hearing his third symphony for the first time, though I have since been able to hear the recording the composer himself made with the Orchestre National de France), but my own inclination is to the latter view.

I can’t now remember where I read or heard the remark, but I recall Jolivet being described as a “sophisticated primitive”. The observation seems to capture much of the quality of his work – there is a fierce energy and rhythmic intensity to it, a fascination with what one might think of as echoes of imagined rituals, of music understood as (to quote Jolivet himself) the “incantatory expression of the sacred in human communities”. But such (so-called) ‘primitive’ elements are complemented by a knowledge of, and an assurance in the handling, something like the whole panoply of twentieth century innovations in compositional process and method. The second of Debussy’s Nocturnes, ‘Fêtes’, with its musical imagery of procession and its combination of an insistently rhythmic ostinato with a kind of sublimated brass-band music must surely have appealed to the young Jolivet. Like ‘Nuages’ (which started a bit hesitantly and took a while to establish its idiom), ‘Fêtes’ received a persuasive performance under the baton of Pascal Rophé, a conductor with an acknowledged mastery of the ‘modern’ French repertoire, the orchestral sound beautifully balanced and shaped. Still, it was perhaps in ‘Sirènes’ that we heard the most persuasive playing (and singing), in a performance which captured shape and line very beautifully. Though much of the music by Jolivet which we were to hear afterwards was without many superficial resemblances to Debussy, these Nocturnes were an apt point of entry, with their use of repetitive patterns, their fascination with orchestral colour, their intriguing (if not especially forceful) percussive effects and their evocation (especially in ‘Sirènes’) of a quasi-religious sense of a power (whose non-denominational nature is reflected in the wordlessness of the chorus, a power which can be apprehended but not comprehended) embracing and sustaining human life.

Jolivet’s Second Cello Concerto (of 1966) was written for Rostropovich. It is an impressive piece, written for cello and strings (in the interview in Musical Times, cited above, Christine Jolivet-Erlih rather delightfully relates how her father “contented himself with a string orchestra, because knowing Soviet orchestras, he knew that although their strings were quite exceptional there were problems with the wind – we are speaking about more than 40 years ago of course”. The work is subdivided into three sections, though played as a single movement. Tripartite divisions (not that they are rigidly handled) are important to the work in other respects too. The first section has three clear smaller subdivisions (marked ‘allant-vivement-cadence); the soloist is surrounded by an inner circle of five string layers and an outer circle made up of the full string orchestra, so that the soloist sits at the centre of concentric circles, as it were. Much interested in esoteric patterns and symbols, Jolivet also makes use, according to Caroline Rae’s helpful programme note, of the Golden Section in the architecture both of the work as a whole and of a lengthy solo cadenza. While I can’t claim to have ‘heard’ the Golden Structure, one certainly senses in the work a kind of subtle interplay between a tight structure which is to some extent imposed on the material and an organicism which captures a sense of the work’s growth from an initial seed. I could have wished for some greater differentiations of tempo between the sections of the work in this performance by cellist Marc Coppey who has, I know performed the work a number of times, and Pascal Rophé. Nor were the melodic lines of the Aria quite as expressive or as simply beautiful as they are in the recording by Rostropovich and Jolivet on Erato (a recording which won a Grand Prix du Disque in France). Still, enough of the work’s considerable virtues were clearly articulated for it to be a genuine pleasure to hear the work live in an essentially idiomatic and sympathetic performance. In the 2006 interview (actually conducted in March 2005) Christine Jolivet-Erlih described it as “a work now hardly known”. In the few years since then it has benefitted from the advocacy of cellists such as Coppey, Jérôme Pernoo and Alban Gerhardt.

The Bassoon Concerto of 1954, scored for string orchestra, harp and piano, is a work of less intensity, and recognisably grows out of the tradition of instrumental test-pieces (of which Jolivet wrote a number for the Paris Conservatoire during the war). It certainly makes the soloist explore the resources of his/her instrument to the full and test his/her own ability to meet the many technical demands of the writing while doing justice to the music’s lively inventiveness. Jarosłav Augustyniak carried off the soloist role very well indeed, fluent and agile, his playing full of variegated colours and rhythmically adroit at every turn. The four movements of the concerto are continuous. The allegro joviale, with its syncopated rhythms was a particular joy, but the serener, more thoughtful recitative which opens the work was also very beautiful. The graceful melodic contours of the Largo cantabile, with some fine writing for the solo violin and the harp, as well as for the bassoon, were striking and enticing, while the counterpoint of the closing Fugato produced some fascinating effects. Just occasionally Augustyniak’s bassoon was in danger of being submerged by the weight of the orchestral sound, but I was less inclined to blame either soloist or conductor for these moments than to regard it as a danger inherent in use of the bassoon as soloist with a large(ish) modern orchestra. When the concert is eventually broadcast on Radio 3 it will be interesting to hear whether or not a little discreet work by the sound engineer has taken place. In any case, this was a fine reading of one of Jolivet’s lighter (but rewarding) scores.

As mentioned above, this was my first time of hearing Jolivet’s Third Symphony, live or recorded. The work was commissioned by the state of Mexico and premiered in Mexico City on 7 August 1964, when Jolivet himself conducted a programme in which Roussel’s Third Symphony and Dutilleux’s Second Symphony framed the new work. Quite a programme! Jolivet’s daughter accompanied her father on the trip to Mexico and has interesting things to say about it on the aforementioned interview. “We went via New York to see Varèse, then from there to the northern United States to visit friends and then down to Mexico. Mexico made a great impression on my father. I knew he was affected by it because he hardly spoke – he was in a state of total absorption … We went to all the museums, the pyramids, everything. He listened to the silence of the Mexican countryside, he listened to the earth itself – he could hear the presence of the past. He always said he was very sensitive to ‘l’atmosphère tellurique’ – this energy which emanates from the depth of the earth”. It is of that ‘atmosphère tellurique’ that the symphony seems most powerfully to speak, communicating as it does a sense of energies deeply grounded in natural forces, of Powers which have their origins deep inside the earth, as it were.

The orchestra used is large, with saxophones replacing bassoons, and there are plenty of percussive effects, some Varèsian, some aptly (given the source of the commission) Latin-American in nature. The work is audibly organic in its use of basic materials stated in the first of its four movements, materials which permeate all that follows and are repeatedly metamorphosed and varied. There are many sudden changes of tempo, many moments of dancing rhythms, even – at times – passages like a supercharged Latin-American big band. Harmonically it is, as Caroline Rea rightly suggests “austere”. The whole has a degree of ferocity, a chthonic energy so insistent that it has an almost ritualistic quality to it. There was plenty of fine playing from the orchestra and Pascal Rophé had a clear and purposeful vision of the music. It was only when I was later able to hear the recording conducted by Jolivet himself that I wondered if – rather as with the earlier performance of the Cello concert – there had been an insufficient attention to the differentiation of tempi. Certainly Jolivet’s own recording has a momentum, and at times a sheer speed, which this performance didn’t quite have. Rophé’s reading created, as it were, some firmer monolithic structures than the composer himself did, but lost something of the rapid explosiveness of Jolivet’s recording in the process of erecting them.

I am in the early days of my acquaintance with this work and, while finding Jolivet’s own interpretation more obviously exciting, I would hesitate to insist that Rophé’s was inferior; enough to say that it was subtly different. Both live performance and recording make me want to get to know the work better. The concert as a whole had the effect of making me feel that I should explore Jolivet’s work more systematically than I have done hitherto.


Glyn Pursglove