For quite some time, posterity remembered Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) for just a handful of songs and the operetta Ciboulette, overlooking the incredible diversity of a catalogue as eclectic as it is appealing. Yet his chamber music contains many little-known treasures: thus, cellist Steven Isserlis, in his preface, hastens to hail the first modern edition of these two scores, which he regularly plays in recital, so much does their beauty enchant the audience.
Published in 1911, the Two Improvisations on Irish Airs for cello and piano turn out to be the transcription of his first and third Preludes for piano four hands (1894). These folk themes come from the collection Songs of Old Ireland, published 12 years earlier by Charles Villiers Stanford: gracefully and tenderly, The Little Red Lark unfurls a melancholic tune of which the regular foundation respects the breadth of phrase typical of folk songs; in The Willow-Tree, the lover begs his beloved in vain to take him in her arms one last time before he lies down, lifeless, in the shade of the tree.
Beyond this sensitive exploration of the Irish soul, Hahn offers us a journey into the past: the Variations chantantes sur un air ancien develop a theme borrowed from Cavalli’s opera Xerse. In this aria (1660 version: Act IV, sc. 6), Ambassador Periarco dreams of moving away from court intrigues to be able to taste the pleasures ‘to which the gods have destined him’. Reynaldo Hahn’s variations succeed in maintaining the sweet simplicity of this theme, as noble as it is refined.