Koechlin: The Seven Stars Symphony; Vers la Voûte Etoilée review – dazzling display of orchestral imagination

Among Charles Koechlin’s huge catalogue of works – well over 200 with opus numbers, and plenty more without – there are four symphonies. Like most of Koechlin’s music they are rarely performed, but his Seven Stars Symphony at least gets sporadic performances, and, as the Capriccio release proves, even occasional recordings. Having been rather disdainful of silent film, Koechlin realised the potency of the talkies in 1932 when he saw Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, and quickly became so enthralled by the new art form that the following year he composed the symphony, making each of its seven movements a portrait of a movie star.

The Seven Stars Symphony is composed for huge forces, and the score is a dazzling display of Koechlin’s orchestral imagination, another reminder that as a master of instrumental colour and texture he had few equals in 20th-century music. In some cases the movements depict the stars in particular roles, so the first movement, with its languorous woodwind solos, is a homage to Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad, while the sixth movement is a portrait of Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel. Lilian Harvey is honoured with a gentle fugue, Clara Bow with an exuberant scherzo, while Greta Garbo’s mystery and remoteness are evoked by an ondes Martenot. Dietrich is honoured by a set of variations on the letters of her name, and the symphony ends with another set of variations, the longest movement in the work, for Charlie Chaplin.

The Basel Symphony Orchestra’s performance under Ariane Matiakh has a wonderful lithe elegance, which matches the beauty and refinement of Koechlin’s writing in every respect. And they pair the symphony with the nocturne Vers la voûte étoilée (Towards the Starry Vault), also composed in 1933 (though not performed until 1989), another gorgeous piece by this ridiculously neglected composer that deserves a regular place in concert programmes.

This week’s other pick
Perhaps one day François-Xavier Roth and the period instruments of Les Siècles will get around to Koechlin’s orchestral music, but in the meantime there is still plenty of the standard French repertoire for them to explore. Their latest disc for Harmonia Mundi is built around Ravel’s two piano concertos, with Cédric Tiberghien as the soloist on an 1892 Pleyel instrument. In between the concertos are three of Ravel’s song cycles, in which the baritone Stéphane Degout is Tiberghien’s wonderfully refined and subtle partner. The concertos receive vivid if slightly brittle performances, with crystal-clear textures and beautifully shaped solo playing from the Siècles woodwind, and from Tiberghien too.