All through the night . . .
Janine Jansen’s new album

For her first recital recording, Decca violinist Janine Jansen has chosen French music. Running through the album, entitled Beau Soir – after Debussy’s lovely early song, which she plays in a transcription for violin and piano – is the theme of night. Noted chamber-music specialist Itamar Golan partners the celebrated young Dutch virtuoso. With such familiar classics as Fauré’s Après un rêve; Clair de lune, another exquisite song by Debussy; Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne; and three new works by the widely admired contemporary Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon whose Violin Concerto Janine Jansen premiered in Paris in 2008, the programme moves from evening to moonlight, from lullabies into sleep, from dreams to awakening and recollection. Also integrated into Beau Soir is music by Messiaen (his Theme and Variations for violin and piano) as well as violin sonatas by Debussy and Ravel.

Janine Jansen and Itamar Golan will be touring with the music of Beau Soir from 31 October to 14 November 2010 (stops to include Arnhem, Amsterdam, Dortmund, Brussels, The Hague, Frankfurt, Berlin and Stockholm) and from 31 March to 12 May 2011 (London, Pamplona, Graz, Baden-Baden, Lisbon and Paris).

In a recent conversation, violinist Janine Jansen and composer Richard Dubugnon talked about the making of Beau Soir:

Janine Jansen: When I had the idea of making this French album, I immediately thought of you, Richard, because I love your music and believe you are one of the most significant heirs to the French sound nowadays.
Richard Dubugnon: Thank you very much, Janine. But what do you mean by French sound?

JJ: How can I describe it? A very particular combination of colour and transparency, subtle harmonies, delicate textures, refined melodies . . .
RD: That’s a good description. I believe this tradition started with César Franck – who was actually Belgian – and his followers, as a reaction to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. They formed the Société Nationale de Musique to promote exclusively French music and forge a new identity that would offer an alternative to Wagner and German music. They looked back to Rameau and Couperin, and also started composing modal music.

JJ: Oh yes, didn’t they try to use Greek modes super-imposed on tonality?
RD: That’s right. This style culminated with Debussy and Ravel, who carried on breaking the rules and making discoveries. Like Satie and lesser-known composers such as Ernest Fanelli. But colourful orchestration goes back much further; Bizet, Berlioz and Saint-Saëns were extremely good colourists. I think a composer is influenced by his home environment – sun, nature, climate . . .

JJ: Maybe that’s why so many painters go to France? I love Impressionism.
RD: I don’t actually think that the French music you refer to is Impressionist in the sense of vague or flou. On the contrary, I find it very sharp and precise. Debussy rejected the term Impressionism and was definitely a Symbolist.

JJ: So it’s an illusory simplicity then? I find Debussy’s music so spontaneous, especially his Violin Sonata. I like the changes of mood, the modulations, which I also find in your music, your Violin Concerto in particular.
RD: Yes, it’s true, modulation is very important to me. What I learned from my teachers in Paris was the flavour of one chord moving to another, the expressiveness of an interval and how to vary a repeated musical pattern rhythmically, harmonically or melodically. Debussy liked to repeat his sequences so often that his fellow-composer Florent Schmitt said he had a stutter!

JJ: Oh dear, he was notorious for his provocative statements, wasn’t he? But didn’t you tell me your teacher was taught by him?
RD: My first harmony professor, Alain Margoni (Grand Prix de Rome), studied privately with Florent Schmitt, who was himself a student of Fauré, in the same class as Ravel.

JJ: So that’s a direct line from Fauré to you!
RD: I must tell you another typical aspect of French culture, which is that we like to bind things together. When we speak, we often link one word to the next, and a TV news presenter will always try to find a common thread linking two stories – so much so that if he fails to do so, he’ll always say: “And without a transition, here’s the rest of the news . . .”.

JJ: That’s all very nice, but what are you driving at?
RD: When you told me which pieces you wanted to record, I realised that there was a thematic thread in the programme, which is the night. So I thought, instead of grouping pieces by composer, we could order the programme chronologically, so that we progress from evening through moonlight, lullaby, sleep and dream to awakening.

JJ: That was quite original. And you were able to compose the missing pieces of the jigsaw. Tell me more about those.
RD: La Minute exquise was inspired by Verlaine’s poem L’Heure exquise, which describes a very intimate moment between two lovers by moonlight. It evokes for me “la petite mort”. I arranged a song I wrote in 1992. “Minute” is understood here as a short moment notable for its affective content. Here’s an extract: 

Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
Un vaste et tendre
Semble descendre
Du firmament
Que l’astre irise . . .
C’est l’heure exquise!

Let’s dream, it is time. A vast and tender relief seems to descend from the firmament, which the moon makes iridescent . . . It’s the exquisite hour.

JJ: Exquisite indeed. What about Hypnos?
RD: Hypnos is the name of the Greek god of sleep, and the piece represents the dream that was missing in your programme, just before Après un rêve . . . I won’t tell you what it is about, as dreams are very personal and different for each of us. You can imagine what you like, but let’s say that it is a colourful dream, with hypnagogic hallucinations. Here too I reworked an existing song of mine, composed in 2000. I dedicated this piece to “Miss Jan”.

JJ: And the third piece?
RD: Here we leave the nocturnal world for the world of remembrance. I went to Ravel’s house a few years ago in Montfort-l’Amaury and I was very moved; it is just as Ravel left it when he died. It looks like a doll’s house full of strange toys, automata and beautiful furniture. Recently I was given permission to compose in this house. I’d urge any lover of Ravel to go and see it – the beautiful Erard piano on which he composed the two piano concertos, his personal effects, the wallpaper he designed himself . . . The piece is simply called Retour à Montfort-l’Amaury and is vaguely reminiscent of Ravel’s music. It has a slow introduction which builds up and leads into an irregular waltz (in 3⁄4 with some occasional 5⁄8). Again, I’m convinced that the surroundings make the artist – the place, the air, the language, the food. One can’t fully understand artists without seeing them in their home environment. So, Janine, would you like to come for dinner tonight . . . ?