Are you familiar with the priceless chamber music ofPaul Juon (1872–
1940)? Who? Exactly, he is unknown. The head of Toccata Classics,
Martin Anderson, recommended to me a recording of Juon’s complete
string quartets on two Musiques Suisses CDs (MGB 6242). Even
though I have lived in Switzerland, I had never heard of this composer.
Only knowing that Juon was Swiss, I listened to the four quartets
without reading the liner notes. Though Juon’s name sounds French,
possibly from the Suisse Romande, I did not hear any French influences
or, for that matter, German from the Berner Oberland. The
music sounded to me like later-day Dvorak in its inimitable element
of human warmth, sweet melody, and gently rocking ostinatos. Like
Dvorak’s, Juon’s music swings, dances, and moves in directly communicative
ways. I then read the notes and, voila, Juon had grown up in
Russia and had studied with the great chamber music composer Sergei Taneyev.
That’s Slavic enough to explain my initial impression. In any case,
this is some of the most enjoyable, companionable chamber music I
have heard in years. These quartets are new friends for life and should
constitute a major find for anyone who cares for chamber music in the
vein of Dvorak. They receive wonderful performances by the Niziol
Quartet. It appears that the Swiss Migros grocery chain, where I used
to get my victuals, supported this recording. Why can’t Giant or Safe2211
way do something like this?
The CPO label has entered the Juon revival with an excellent CD
of the Piano Quartets, op. 50 and op. 37 (777 278). These two works
would have done Taneyev proud. They are both masterpieces of the genre from the early 20th century—romantic, melodically compelling,
and life-giving. You must get at least one ofthe available versions. Both
Piano Quartets are also available on Musiques Suisses (MGB 6244),
played by the Berlin Philharmonic Quartet. The Profil label has released
a CD (PH 07013) pairing Juon’s Piano Quartet no. 1, Rhapsody,
op. 37 with Dvorak’s First Piano Quartet, played by the Artis Piano
Quartet. I marginally prefer the Artis version ofQuartet no. 1 because
it gives the music the extra bit ofbreathing space that allows for greater
expressivity, but the driving force of the Berliners also has its attractions,
along with the offer of the Second Quartet. By all means, you
must hear one of these versions of the indispensable First Quartet. Where has this music been all my life? But there is more.
I have bagged the Challenge Classics two-CD (72002) set of Juon’s
six Piano Trios, beautifully performed by the Altenberg Trio Wien.
They are exquisite. The two later works, titled Litaniae (Trio no. 4)
from 1920 and Legende (Trio no. 5) from 1930, are reflective, melancholic
and touching. Some composers excel in only one genre. I don’t
know if this was true of Juon, but his mastery here is indisputable and the music indispensable.
It is hard to believe this man was almost totally eclipsed by the 20th
century. There is an International Juon Society, created in 1998, to
promote the resuscitation of his music, which is billed as ‘‘the missing link between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky’’.
Swiss composer Fabio Maffei’s Le Petit Prince pour orchestra de chambre
is so truly special, it needs to be heard to be believed. The work is
simply a masterpiece, which is also how the jury at the 1995 Young
Composer’s Competition of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra saw it,
giving it their first prize. Ten short ‘‘pictures’’ that accompany the ten
chapters ofthe book ofwhich Maffei says he simply wrote what he felt.
Not surprisingly, music that is felt sounds very different from music
that is thought or constructed. And the result is a work so unabashedly
charming, it is difficult to believe that a 28-year old composer had the
guts to write it and not fear being accused of being derivative. He’s
not, but that doesn’t mean the music can’t remind of composers we know; anything from Korngold to Messiaen, actually . . . and plenty of gorgeous intimations of the latter.
Superficial similarities between the final chapter in Maffei’s Prince,
‘‘L’Étoile’’, and Des Canyons Aux Étoiles exist, but they are not intentional.
Asked about the likeness, Maffei said: ‘‘Not only didn’t I know
that work back then, . . . I wasn’t even fond ofMessiaen’s music at the
time. [But I should] point out that more distinctly Messiaenic flavors
[can] be found in my more recent works, and that both Messiaen and
René Gerber, my composition teacher, studied in Paris in Paul Dukas’
class.’’ Even had he liked and used Messiaen then, Maffei’s 20-minute
orchestral ‘‘illustration’’ sounds inspired, not copied, and it is all I need
to know to eagerly keep my ears and eyes wide open for any future
instances of Maffei. The Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Emmanuel Siffert performs Le Petit Prince irreproachably on a Gall(o) disc.