I doubt if many in the know would take issue if I called Charles Koechlin the most underrated French composer of the 20th century. He was gifted, brilliant, original and his music sounds more current than ever.
Today's CD comes as a pleasant surprise, then, since it is devoted to Koechlin's treatment of other people's music. It reminds us directly and movingly that he was a great orchestrator. Magicien orchestratur (SWR Music/Hanssler Classic 93.286) puts conductor Heinz Holliger at the helm of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR for a program that has great beauty and aural vibrancy.
Debussy's Khamma is given a glowing palette of orchestral color; Koechlin's Sur les Flots lointains (sur un Chant donne de Catherine Urner) has brevity and charm. The Koechlin orchestration of Faure's Pelleas et Melisande is perfection. It makes the impressionistic qualities of Faure's lyricism breathe with springlike rapture.
The Schubert Wandererfantasie convinces with an orchestration in keeping with Schubert's period. It's less spectacular but fun to hear. Then there is Chabrier's Bourre fantasque, a beautiful orchestration of one of the gems of the piano repertoire.
Throughout as one listens, one is reminded that Koechlin as orchestrator was at the level of Ravel when things went well. The Faure and Chabrier show that. What is good orchestration except a bringing out of the color implications of the melody-harmony sequences at hand? Koechlin does it masterfully. Holliger and the SWR Orchestra do the music just right. It's great fun to hear, a great pleasure and another reminder of Koechlin's stature.