Koechlin: Les heures persanes, Op. 65

COMPOSERS: Koechlin
LABELS: Hanssler
ALBUM TITLE: Koechlin
WORKS: Les heures persanes, Op. 65
PERFORMER: Stuttgart RSO, SWR
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.125
Les heures persanes, inspired by a book of Pierre Loti, is a musical travelogue, an imaginative enactment of a caravan journey through Persia over the Iranian highlands. Yet its hour-long duration, its 16 movements, are virtually devoid of incident, anecdote or onomatopoeia. All is tranced, dreamlike: Koechlin is concerned with evocation, atmosphere, heat, sunshine, darkness, stillness. Even the few fast or vigorous movements are brief and curiously insubstantial, hardly disturbing the oriental calm. The music is, as he wrote, ‘a dream of imaginary far horizons – of the infinite, the mysteries of the night, and triumphant burst of light’. Endless subtleties of tone and colour, and the prismatic overlapping of planes in bitonal harmony are what gives the work its fascination. For a performance to hold the listener’s attention requires utter identification with the composer’s intentions.

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In fact, both in its 1913 solo piano original (currently available in a fine Chandos version from Kathryn Stott) and in this full-orchestral version he transcribed in 1921, Les heures persanes has been fortunate. There is already a thoroughly hypnotic performance, well-recorded, by the Rheinland-Pfalz Orchestra under Leif Segerstam (Marco Polo). In fact Segerstam is even more dreamlike and insubstantial than this new account in Heinz Holliger’s Koechlin cycle, for his tempos are uniformly slower, adding a full ten minutes to the duration of Koechlin’s dream. But Holliger, too, with somewhat more refined orchestral playing, is equally evocative, and I would be hard-put to choose between them. Mind-changing music, beautifully served.

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Calum MacDonald