Knowing Godard primarily by the trite Berceuse from his opera Jocelyn and a few pièces d’occasion, I can’t pretend that I was expecting to enjoy this CD very much. How wrong can one be? It is an utter delight, and would be equally at home in the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series, offering as it does not only Godard’s Piano Concerto, which manages to be both large and concise, but also a sizeable Introduction and Allegro for piano and orchestra. The dominant impressions one takes away from these excellent, committed, performances are that this is music of real quality, both in the concertante works and the Symphonie, and that Godard had a flair for organising material on a relatively large scale—the Concerto, for instance, is cast in four substantial movements, including a lovely Litolffesque Scherzo. All three works were written between 1875 and 1884, and their musical language is both late-romantic and yet refreshingly un-convoluted in a distinctively French way—the Concerto is reminiscent of Saint-Säens. One could describe the Symphonie Orientale as inhabiting a region somewhere between Félicien David and Rimsky-Korsakov—there is little hint of either the hubris of Berlioz or the gravity of Franck here. Mention of David is particularly relevant, as he was among the very first French essayers of that Orientalisme that became unavoidably entangled with colonialisme, and which is exemplified in the Godard Symphonie Orientale, with its ingenuously utopian picturesqueness. Godard’s poetry-driven exoticism is rather broadly encompassing: his first movement has elephants plodding (chromatically) through desert; his second adopts a more Nutcracker-y than eastern- sounding chinoiserie; his third and fourth depict a skinny-dipping Greek nymph, and a Persian girl dreaming, respectively; and he chooses to close his five-movement Symphonie with a lengthy Turkish March. There is very little attempt to create a sense of foreignness through the actual musical material; Godard relies almost entirely on colour and imagery to provide strangeness. If one forgives and forgets the whiff of imperialism, this is thoughtful and charming music that unquestionably deserves reappraisal.
Godard Piano Concerto 1