French composer Charles Koechlin had a bit of an obsession with 'The Jungle Book' and over many years he produced a range of orchestral and vocal works based on Kipling’s tales. This 1993 recording by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and David Zinman (on RCA) collects most of them on one handy 2 CD set. For the most part, it’s very good music - though the later pieces, from the 1930s, can be a bit dull: ‘The Law of the Jungle’ for example, is a stately, repetitive statement that doesn’t really go anywhere. So too ‘The Meditation of Purun-Bhagat’ which moves along (aptly, I guess) in a sort of musical trance. ‘The Bandar-Log’, on the other hand is a lively, modernist sixteen-minute scherzo depicting the horde of chattering monkeys who abduct the man-cub Mowgli, and spirit him away to their home in the ruins. ‘La Course de Printemps’ (or ‘The Spring Running’) written between 1925 and 1927 is the best work here; split into distinctive movements, it includes a beautiful, atmospheric opening, a short portrait of Mowgli, and ends with the evocative seven-minute ‘Night’.
Of the ‘Three Poems’ (of 1904), the ‘Seal Lullaby’ and ‘Night-Song’ are particularly lovely, performed here by tenor Johan Botha, mezzo Iris Vermilion, and the Berlin Radio Chamber Choir. Bass Ralf Lukas, though, isn’t very good in the ‘Song of Kala Nag’. Incidentally, Maurice Delage set the same text of the ‘Seal Lullaby’ in his delightful ‘Chant de la Jungle - Berceuse Phoque' which can be found on a 1995 album by Felicity Lott with the Kammersensemble de Paris (conducted by Armin Jordan). Or you can stick with the Sherman Brothers songs - Disney’s animated film is pretty great, after all - though Koechlin’s music somehow gets to the serious heart of Kipling more effectively.
It's difficult to know where to start with this review and that reflects a problem with this recording - what is the correct order to place these tone poems and songs. I'm not entirely sure myself but the final work on the first cd ought to be the final work of the whole piece. This piece is Spring Running and it depicts Mowgli's attempts to avoid the inevitable lure of human community and relationships. Surely this should be the finale: how can Mowgli leave the jungle with a full cd to play? I guess Disney did make Jungle Book II but that was a calamity.
The order of the recordings is broadly chronological to the time of composition.
What we have, as performances, are probably the best available and will take some beating. Add to that the bargain price paid. You might say I'm being mean not to give this five stars. I do think that a more logical order of performance would help though. I guess that you can always choose your own order once you're familiar with the music and play it back in that order.
Koechlin was, by all accounts a well loved if slightly eccentric figure, but his late romantic ego gets in the way of the first two tone poems on cd2. They both sound similarly contemplative and impressionistic whilst still managing to lack any rich tone colour - they're slow and rather grey sounding. This was Koechlin's view of the best outlook artisticly and philosophically. It was the stylistic ideal and only he knew the right approach. How many other late romantics thought they had a unique vision and sounded flatulent and dull?
Le Bandar Log, that completes cd2 comes as a blessed relief with it's chattering monkeys and lampooning of contemporary styles. There's the problem: the lampooning sounds more fun than Koechlin's more serious and philosophical musing in the previous two movements. This music sounds anything but French and more like Alfred Schnittke in one of his kaleidoscopic, polystylistic works from the 1970's or 80s including parodies of atonal music - it really is the highlight of the recording, though Spring Running is a substantial achievement too. After its quiet opening it swirls around in all directions.
It isn't a natural finish to the cycle though. It, like the previous two movements, smugly settles into Koechlin's philosophically grey music at the very end. So much enjoyable music preceded it and the coda is so short that this doesn't spoil the movement too much.
On cd1 Spring Running is a big and dramatic work lasting over thirty minutes. It is preceded by his early Jungle Book songs for soloist and orchestra. These are a mix of late romantic and impressionistic opulence - there is nothing grey about these - they're very beautiful. Therein lies the other problem, these tone poems were written over decades rather than months and the earlier works reflect the lush late romantic / impressionist style but the later works are more harmonically advanced and weighty pieces. I guess when you add that factor it's hard to see any formal or harmonic unity across the set. One hting to note inthe more hamronically advanced "Spring Running", rhythms havent' kept up with the harmonic development. The music often dances in a rustic french style - a la "Rondes de Printemps" from Debussy's "Images". Still it's hardly a fault and still sounds ravishing.
So I do recommend this recording. You might even like Koechlin's philosophically grey music more than me too. There is enough fine music, played and recorded superbly and at a bargain price, so this is well worth exploring. One minor quibble - there are only about 89 minutes of music spread over the 2 cds so that may partly explain the price. I think this recording has been withdrawn from distribution so, if you're interested, it is best to snap it up now.
I have to disagree with one reviewer who laments Koechlin's philosophically grey (in places) music and that this may be the best recording available. Zinman has an immediate and vibrant appeal, however in Law of The Jungle, Koechlin's most monodic music, as commanding and majestic as it may start here, complete with dramatic gongs, there is little variety or nuance in this performance and that may be the 'greyness' that the reviewer refers to. I only have Segerstam on Marco Polo to compare, and of course that CD does not include the 3 songs. At first, I was more impressed with Zinman, but after repeated listening one begins to appreciate the nuances, pacing, deft phrasing and magical atmosphere that Segerstam achieves. The gongs at the beginning of Segerstam's performance maybe less dramatic, but have a quiet authority of their own. Then there are so many subtle touches that I simply don't hear in the Zinman and which this music deserves. In fact, during the whole cycle I feel Zinman's approach is one of drama and vitality, but at the expense of a lighter, more nuanced feel. Segerstam is more at ease, gently moulding the fabulous sonoroties and allowing all the subtleties of Koechlin's scoring to unfold naturally.