Slow moments with SW: Reynaldo Hahn – poignant seduction

Reynaldo Hahn in 1898 photographed by Paul Nadar

“When he takes his place at the piano, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, everyone is quiet and gathers around to listen. Every note is a word or a cry. His head is slightly tilted back: his mouth is melancholy and rather scornful. Thence emanates the saddest and warmest voice you can imagine. This instrument of genius, by name Reynaldo Hahn, moves our hearts, moistens our eyes, cures us one after the other in a silent and solemn undulation. Never since Schumann has music painted sorrow, tenderness, the calm induced by nature, with such brush strokes of human truth and absolute beauty.”

So wrote Proust of Reynaldo Hahn. I cannot possibly disagree! And why, I ask myself – I hope not rhetorically – are Hahn’s works (apart from some of his songs) not far more regularly programmed? Yes, I know we all know À Chloris, but really – when did you last hear his Violin Concerto being given? Or his Piano Quintet, or, or…anyway, here is my modest attempt to right the balance with my selection of some of his gorgeous slow moments…

Hahn was born in 1874 in Venezuela but during the political unrest which unfolded in the decade there, his family – wealthy industrialists – fled to France in 1878. Hahn attended the Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of 11 under the tutelage of Massenet and they remained friends once Hahn’s studentship was complete. The young Reynaldo quickly became the darling of the Paris salon scene performing his songs to a delighted audience. It was here he met Marcel Proust – a two-year romance followed which mellowed into a lifelong friendship. His output as a composer is prodigious: alongside his mélodies he produced many operettas (all now, long forgotten) as well as orchestral and chamber works. He died, from a brain tumour, at the age of 70.

So, to the slow moments: let’s start with the gorgeous Andante from his Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, composed in 1922.  Here is Francis Pott on the movement from his sleeve notes to accompany the stunning recording by Stephen Coombs and the Chilingirian Quartet:

“The slow second movement presents a soulful, song-like theme in C sharp minor. Fauré seems to preside more closely over the unhurried triple time and the instrumentation itself… This movement remains predominantly introverted, ostensibly heading towards a climax but then relaxing into the idyllic retrospection of an unexpected F major episode (ushering in a change of time signature). The dominant pedal note underpinning this passage conveys a certain quasi-rustic wistfulness which again suggests the prayer-like sensibility of certain quiet Dvorák chamber movements…The movement reaches an unhurried conclusion in the key of C sharp major.”

And here are Dania Tchalik and the Quatuor Tchalik from June 2017

Now to the Violin concerto slow movement – why is this work not part of the standard repertoire? It’s never been performed at the Proms – come on BBC, right the balance in 2021! But, there is a possible reason for this absence from the mainstream concerto repertoire as this November 1987 review from the LA Times explains:

“It wasn’t bad reviews, but bad housekeeping that kept Reynaldo Hahn’s Violin Concerto from public performance for the last 60 years. That will change tonight when Henryk Szeryng, the Polish-born violinist from Mexico who discovered the long-lost score in a musty old Venezuelan library, performs the work with the Atlanta Symphony. The concerto was performed publicly once–in Paris in 1928–before the score disappeared, only to resurface after Hahn died in 1947. Misplaced again, the score was rediscovered by the 69-year-old Szeryng in December, 1984, but illness kept him from performing the piece until now.”

The work was composed between 1926 and 1927 and given its first performance by Gabriel Bouillon in 1928 and one of his pupils at the Paris Conservatoire was Henryk Szeryng – thus we join the dots with the LA Times review…

…and here is a little extract from a review in Gramophone of the violin and cello concertos which sets the context in which the work was composed:

“Both works belong to a period in Hahn’s life when he knew that strange mixture of happiness and regret that comes to us all in our fifties. The great figures he had known in his youth were nearly all dead‚ the First World War had claimed many of his contemporaries‚ and the glamour that had once surrounded his name had faded. Yet in the Paris of the 1920s he had his biggest stage successes (Ciboulette and Mozart) and entered on the longest and happiest relationship of his life with the tenor Guy Ferrant; all this seems to be expressed in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto. Here we have Hahn the successor to his teacher Massenet‚ spinning a slow‚ languorous tune that hovers between dance and delirium. It is marked throughout Tranquillo‚ Très calme‚ Amoroso and Sans rigueur. Denis Clavier plays it with just the right air of restraint: as Jean Gallois writes in the notes‚ it is ‘a song from the soul without pathos’.”

Prepare yourselves – this is heartrendingly beautiful, so much so that I can hardly bear to listen. Its title, ‘Chant d’Amour’, gives advance warning of what to expect here is Denis Clavier with the Orchestra National de Lorraine.

And that final sentence from the Gramophone review could equally well apply to all the slow moments in this post. Just listen to Néère, from Hahn’s Études Latines composed between 1899 and 1900.

Ok, ok, I know you want me to offer up À Chloris …how can I refuse. And how can I not also offer you an extract from Graham Johnson’s masterly overview of the work in his sleeve notes for his and Martyn Hill’s Hyperion recording:

À Chloris has charm, elegance, gravity and the ability to move audiences—what more could one ask of a song, whether or not it is a pastiche? The fact that it is based on the striding bass line of Bach’s ‘Air on the G-string’ seems irrelevant: one smiles at the composer’s audacity at the beginning, but one stays to listen to the music, Hahn’s music, in its own right. It uses one of his favourite devices where the accompaniment is a piano piece with its own momentum; over this the voice embroiders an inspired overlay which seems half sung and half spoken, moving with conversational grace between whispered confidences and declarations of love in full voice.”

Written in 1913, it forms part of Hahn’s Second book of Melodies and the text is by Théophile de Viau. This is Joyce Didonato at home with Chloris – a particularly appropriate performance at the moment.

Gorgeous isn’t it?



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