Close your eyes and think of Paris. What do you see? The Eiffel Tower? One of Hector Guimard’s gorgeous art nouveau entrances to the Métro? The Moulin Rouge in Montmartre? Or a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec? All these images emerge from the so-called Belle Époque, those four-and-a-half gilded decades bookended by the Franco-Prussian War (which ended in 1871) and the start of the First World War in 1914. It was an age of prosperity, creativity, originality and frivolity, but underneath the glamour and laughter something darker lay stirring.
For Daniel Hope, the Belle Époque has long held a consuming fascination. “I often wish I had a time machine to go back to the salons of Paris, indeed to that entire age. It was a period in which people started to question the very idea of art: where did it come from, what was it allowed to say, what were its values and what should or could it express? And at the same time there was much division, hatred and jealousy. ‘Belle Époque’ is a rather misleading expression. As Mark Twain said, who together with Charles Dudley Warner coined the phrase ‘The Gilded Age’, there was nothing ‘belle’ about it; it was a thin gilding that masked an era of serious social problems, political tensions, discontent among the working classes and imperialism. And yet with hindsight we tend to look at it and say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’” Ernest Chausson captured the unsettled mood perfectly when he wrote: “I was sad without quite knowing why, but firmly convinced that I had the best reason in the world for it.”
The tensions of the Belle Époque with, on the one hand, its promise of prosperity and above all peace, and on the other, the terrible social deprivations and divisions, are held in fascinating equilibrium in the music of this album. An album which, as Daniel Hope points out, also sheds light “across borders to what was happening throughout Europe: Art Nouveau, Secession, Jugendstil. These related trends were understood as a rejection of the traditional forms of the nineteenth-century ‘Gründerzeit’. A fresh, sensual art was to emerge, adhering closely to nature as a model and at the same time able to give visual expression to deep, concealed emotional states. Vienna represented an important center of ‘Jugendstil’, just one reason to include both Schoenberg and his teacher Zemlinsky on this album.” Janus-like, much of the music simultaneously looks both forward and backward, and right at its heart is Chausson’s masterpiece, his Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, presented here in an orchestration that expands that quartet to a full string ensemble. “I find it encapsulates so much of that period: the sensual tonality and yet this deep, almost nostalgic desire to revisit one’s past, as he does in the second movement, a Sicilienne, a term applied to a musical genre included in Baroque suites. Chausson was a fascinating yet deeply enigmatic figure in his tragically short life. In his Chausson biography, Ralph Scott Grover describes the composer’s character as one of innate goodness, with a generosity marked by real self-effacement. He used his fortune to help deserving but impecunious fellow composers with the understanding that his name would not be revealed. And yet he would have public feuds with composers whom he helped.” (And one of those was Claude Debussy, with whom he had a complex relationship: the juxtaposition of his Rêverie with the Chausson Concerto merely puts this tension into perspective.)
Daniel Hope explains his orchestrated Concerto by pointing to the three versions of Chausson’s much-loved Poème: violin and piano, the famous one for violin and orchestra, and then a version for the exact same forces as the Concerto. “It’s based on the fact that he’d orchestrated his own chamber works, especially the Poème. There are certain moments where I felt we had to leave it exactly as written because it’s so magnificently beautiful, but also others, like the third movement with its brooding pessimism, that I find unnerving and where the addition of a bass as well as an increased string presence emphasises those harmonic changes, making it almost inexorably Wagnerian. For Chausson, like many French composers of the time, the shadow of Wagner still loomed over the musical horizon even after his death in 1883. In 1889 the composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted after hearing the prelude to Tristan and had to be carried out of the theatre!”
Another string-infused piece turns the focus to post-Victorian England: Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905. “I adore Elgar, I always have,” confesses Hope. “In a sense he’s a contradiction to the pessimism that was sweeping through England with this jubilant, hopeful music. Written at a time when there were not many popular works for string orchestra heard at symphony concerts, the form of the piece is original: one of the themes had come to Elgar in August 1901 during a holiday in Wales, supposedly inspired by the distant singing of Welsh folk tunes. I feel it’s a reflection of the transition from the 19th into the 20th century. Elgar resurrected the baroque concerto grosso style, wherein a string quartet alternately emerges from and blends back into the orchestra. It was also meant to showcase the strings of the newly formed London Symphony Orchestra. So, for me it demonstrates the collective thought of this new freedom that was sweeping Europe. It’s a different sound world if you compare it to Chausson or Schoenberg. It’s so extraordinarily English, and I mean that in the best sense!”
The chamber works on the album are hardly less evocative, and trace an arc, almost year by year, from an early student work by Rachmaninov (1893) to the modernity, in miniature, of Anton Webern’s Four Pieces op. 7 (1910, ultimately revised in 1914). Along the way, Daniel Hope explains, “I wanted to demonstrate the anachronistic beauty of something like Reynaldo Hahn’s À Chloris. You can hear Paul Juon, an unusual figure, who was born in Moscow and later employed by Joseph Joachim as a composition professor in Berlin. And of course there are the usual suspects such as Fauré and Debussy, and rightfully so. The Andante by Fauré is the discarded second movement of a Violin Concerto, a piece never completed. It’s a gorgeous work, almost forgotten, rather austere yet with an achingly beautiful sound world. Another forgotten masterpiece for me is the posthumously published sonata by Fauré’s pupil, Maurice Ravel. Ravel wrote the movement in 1897, around the time he enrolled in the Paris Conservatory as a composition student. I’m aware that some people say Ravel was so exact and that he buried certain pieces and wanted them neither discovered nor performed. Nonetheless, I find the piece, just on the cusp of the new century, an exact and very moving reflection of what Belle Époque stands for.”