'These really are very good performances of two mystifyingly neglected gems of the repertoire' (BBC Record Review)
'Heavenly Hahn in this latest addition to this treasure of a series' (Classic CD)
'If you'd sooner have fraises des bois and crème Chantilly rather than foie gras and trumpets, this is for you' (Gramophone)
'Hyperion is to be congratulated for adding this work to its growing series of Hahn compositions … high spirits and joy aplenty … Another Romantic Piano Concerto winner from Hyperion; heartily recommended' (Fanfare, USA)
'Coombs believes implicitly in both compositions and his restrained brand of pearly virtuosity (right for the music) added to a considerable musical sensibility puts forward a persuasive case' (Hi Fi News)
'A thoroughly delightful piece [Hahn], well worth reviving, here perfectly coupled. A delight [Massenet].' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
'One of the finest releases in Hyperion's ongoing series of Romantic piano concertos. There's no reason why these pieces aren't standard repertoire, especially in performances like this: Coombs literally plays the pants off both of them, and Ossonce matches him lick for lick. It's the genuine article, a true discovery, a collector's dream' (Classical Pulse!, USA)
'Ambas obras permiten el lucimiento del solista, y lógicamente Coombs no ha dejado escapar la oportunidad para ofrecernos unas versiones majestuosas, rebosantes de sonoridad, dotadas de un magnetismo evidente' (CD Compact, Spain)
'Stephen Coombs is at least as fine as any artist to appear from Russia in all the past 20 years. Sonics are excellent and the booklet brimming with interest' (In Tune, USA)
'A thoroughly delightful disc' (Piano International)
Airs slovaques: Allegro [7'07]
Danse: Vif [2'45]
The Romantic Piano Concerto Series goes French for this recording of the single examples in the genre by Massenet and his pupil Hahn. Both works were written towards the end of their composers' careers and mark a return to the piano for each of them; the piano had originally been the first instrument of both, but opera and the voice had occupied them for most of their lives.
Although both concertos owe a debt to the lean and athletic piano style exemplified by Saint-Saëns, they are very different in character. The Massenet is an extrovert work culminating in a very Lisztian 'Hungarian' finale, while the Hahn is primarily lyrical and gentle, the composer's gifts as a composer of songs easily transferring to the concerto medium.
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In the first half of the nineteenth century Paris became the centre of a pianistic revolution. Many of the great pianists of the time lived and worked there and virtually every pianist of note played there. With the establishment of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795 a school of French pianism came into being.
Louis Adam was the first important professor of piano at the Conservatoire and he advocated a technique based on finger independence together with an almost motionless arm. His most famous student was Friedrich Kalkbrenner and from him we can trace that distinctive French contribution to pianism known as ‘jeu perlé’. This term, first coined in 1836 to describe the playing of Sigismond Thalberg (a pupil of Kalkbrenner), refers to the technique of clean, rapid passage-work of great evenness based on suppleness and a highly developed finger technique. All the great pianists who graduated from the Paris Conservatoire in the nineteenth century were noted for this technique so it is not surprising that clarity, beauty of tone and fast passage-work became the hallmark of so much French piano music.
With such a strong and distinctive piano tradition came a plethora of new piano concertos although, from the many examples written, only a few of Saint-Saëns’ concertos still hold a place in the concert repertoire. Both the Massenet and Hahn piano concertos stand firmly in the nineteenth-century tradition and whilst neither composer is usually associated with the piano medium, both were masters of the French playing style.
That a great opera composer like Massenet should have written a piano concerto at all is a cause for speculation. However, the emergence of the concerto when the composer was already sixty becomes less surprising if we look more closely at his early life and career.
Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet was born on 12 May 1842, and for the rest of his life he never forgave his parents for the names they had given him which he loathed with an implacable hatred (although they seem to be preferable to the unfortunate nickname his brothers and sisters gave him of ‘Rickets’). His father Alexis Massenet was an indifferent businessman specializing in pig-iron and his mother, Alexis’ second wife, gave piano lessons to supplement the shaky family finances. Jules received his first piano lessons from his mother at the age of five and made such rapid progress that he entered the Paris Conservatoire six years later.
At this stage his ambitions lay firmly in the direction of the piano virtuoso. He recalled later: ‘I wore my hair ridiculously long, as was the fashion with virtuosi and this outward resemblance suited my ambitious dreams. It seemed that unkempt hair was the complement of talent!’ Massenet’s facility for hard work, a trait which never left him, brought its own rewards when in July 1859 he gained a first prize at the Conservatoire for his performance of Hiller’s F minor concerto—an almost essential qualification then for a successful performing career in France.
The glittering playing career, however, never materialized—mainly due to financial difficulties. His father was unable to provide him with an allowance and so Massenet was forced to live with his married sister eking out a precarious existence by teaching, playing in cafés and working in the evenings as a percussionist at the Paris Opéra. It was here that night after night he would hear some of the finest singers of the day and that his life-long interest in opera was to begin. This experience of playing in the theatre pit gave Massenet an insight into orchestration and a love of theatre’s dramatic possibilities. And so, although a first prize traditionally marked the end of a student’s formal training, Massenet decided to return to the Conservatoire where, in 1860, he enrolled in the harmony class of François Bazin.
Unfortunately, Bazin had no time for Massenet’s early compositions. Massenet was labelled a black sheep and shown the door. It is surely fitting that eighteen years later Massenet was to take over Bazin’s harmony class at the Conservatoire and later his chair at the Académie des beaux-arts. In the end Massenet studied harmony with the more congenial teacher Reber and became a favourite composition pupil of Ambroise Thomas—an almost forgotten composer now, but one who achieved considerable success in his day with operas such as Mignon and Hamlet (Chabrier once commented, ‘There are three sorts of music: good music, bad music, and the music Ambroise Thomas writes’). Just as earlier with his piano studies, Massenet quickly found success as a composer and in 1863, at the second attempt, he won the coveted Prix de Rome. This enabled him to spend three years in Italy at the Villa Medici where he set about developing his talents.
‘It was in Rome that I first began to live’, declared Massenet, and it is certainly true that up until this point he had lived a life of poverty, an experience which made him careful with his money in later life and which gave him a healthy respect for commercial success. Rome’s most famous resident musician was Franz Liszt, who was a frequent visitor to the Villa Medici and often gave informal recitals there. Liszt soon noticed the young Massenet and, impressed by his playing, persuaded him to take over one of his pupils, a young beauty called Constance de Sainte-Marie. It was a fortuitous arrangement as Massenet soon fell completely in love with her and, in order to secure her parents’ permission to marry, threw himself into work with renewed determination—he was to marry Constance in 1866 after his return to Paris.
It was from Rome that Massenet wrote to his sister, ‘I am working more at the piano. I’m studying Chopin’s Études, but especially Beethoven and Bach as the true musician-pianist’. And it was as a ‘musician-pianist’ that Massenet saw himself at the time. What could be less surprising then that, with his future operatic success yet to come, he should embark on a piano concerto which was to remain as a collection of sketches until 1902, when, in a period of three months, he finally completed the version heard on this recording. Why he returned to these early sketches we shall never know, but it gives us a fascinating glimpse back to the young piano virtuoso who was later to conquer the world of opera but who never forgot his early ambitions. The influence of Liszt can be clearly heard, especially in the opening of the work and in the splendidly over-the-top last movement. The marriage of conventional French pianistic writing and Lisztian bravura is an unusual one and if there is a feeling that perhaps the whole is less than the sum of its parts—what parts they are! A combination of frothy abandon and elegant melody, youthful exuberance tempered by experience.
Massenet holds a place as one of France’s greatest musical influences, both as a composer and a teacher. His many pupils included Gustave Charpentier, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt, Gabriel Pierné and Reynaldo Hahn.
Reynaldo Hahn was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on 9 August 1874 and, like Massenet, was the youngest child of a large family. However, unlike Massenet, his parents were very prosperous. His father, Carlos Hahn, was a successful engineer and businessman of German-Jewish origin, his mother was a Venezuelan Catholic. Having made his money in South America, Don Carlos Hahn retired and moved his family to Paris when Reynaldo was only three years old. It is interesting to note that although he was brought up in France from infancy, Reynaldo Hahn did not become a naturalized Frenchman until he was thirty-seven years old.
The family settled down to a life of comfort. An Italian piano teacher was duly brought in to give the young Reynaldo piano lessons. As with Massenet, his progress was swift and, at the age of ten, Reynaldo entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying in the same piano class as Cortot and Ravel. The young Hahn had always been fascinated by operetta and had developed a particular love for Gounod’s music; now he found himself receiving composition lessons from the great man himself. The association with Gounod, however, was brief and the main influence on his development came from Massenet who became Reynaldo’s composition professor in 1887.
As a teacher, Massenet has sometimes been accused of merely producing imitators of his own work—Hahn refuted these claims: ‘Never, never did Massenet impose his own ideas, preferences or style on any of his pupils. On the contrary, he identified himself with each of them, and one of the most remarkable features of his teaching was the faculty of assimilation he showed when correcting their work … he drew it, so to speak, from the pupil himself, from his own temperament, character and style.’
Hahn was to remain fiercely loyal to Massenet and always remembered him with affection. The two composers’ careers reveal remarkable coincidences. Both were drawn to the theatre, each enjoying early success at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Both won fame for their melodic invention and easy craftsmanship and both were drawn to music from the past. Indeed much of the success of Massenet’s opera Manon can be attributed to his pastiche of eighteenth-century music which is found also in much of the music of Chérubin and Cendrillon. In Hahn’s case, pastiches such as his Piano Sonatine are of such conviction that a provincial organist once wrote to the publisher Heugel asking for information on the unknown seventeenth-century composer Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn, incidentally, was a great admirer of Mozart—conducting his operas at Salzburg and Paris and conducting a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D major (K537) with Magda Tagliaferro, the dedicatee of Hahn’s own concerto. The main similarity, however, between Hahn and Massenet, was their innate conservatism which in both cases led to later careers of comparative obscurity. Hahn is best remembered today as a composer of charming mélodies and an intimate friend of Proust, but he was also a successful opera composer and conductor (in 1945, at the end of his life, he was appointed director of the Paris Opéra) and, in addition to his operas, ballets and song cycles, he left a respectable body of piano works, including his set of 53 pieces Le Rossignol Éperdu. There is some fine chamber music, including two string quartets and a Piano Quintet, a Violin Concerto and, in 1930, a Piano Concerto.
Here we come to another coincidence. Massenet was sixty years old when he completed his only piano concerto—Hahn was fifty-five. What prompted both composers, at such a late stage in their careers, to turn to such an unexpected medium? Perhaps the answer is that as the musical world moved on, regarding both composers as living relics, they both felt an instinctive pull back to their beginings as pianists and the glittering, elegant music of the nineteenth-century pianistic tradition. Certainly, both concertos evidence a musical style which, especially in Hahn’s case, must have seemed very dated for the time. That said, what a jewel Hahn’s concerto is. From the opening piano chords, it surprises and delights. It is full of unexpected harmonic shifts and sequences, rich in fascinating detail and generous in its melodic content. The ‘Rêverie’ of the final movement is as beautiful as anything composed by Hahn and the concerto as a whole is a fitting tribute to a still underrated composer.
When Massenet’s piano concerto was premiered in 1903 it received a very tepid welcome. The first performance was given by Louis Diemer, the work’s dedicatee, and thereafter the concerto fell into obscurity. Diemer was a contemporary of Massenet, indeed they had both studied composition with Ambroise Thomas. A famous virtuoso, Diemer was also himself a fairly successful composer (he wrote a piano concerto in C minor and many other solo piano works, as well as songs and chamber music); he was also the Paris Conservatoire’s most famous piano professor. By the time of the first performance of Massenet’s concerto, Diemer was sixty years old. With a concerto that calls for youthful exuberance, it may well be that the poor reception from the audience was occasioned as much by the performance as the music itself. The pianist Mark Hambourg dismissed Diemer as ‘a dry-as-dust player with a hard rattling tone’, but again this verdict must have been based on memories of an older Diemer. The general respect accorded him, especially in France, is convincingly demonstrated by the enormous number of works dedicated to Diemer, including (apart from Massenet’s concerto) Franck’s Variations symphoniques, Saint- Saëns’ fifth piano concerto, Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto, Lalo’s piano concerto and the twelfth Barcarolle by Fauré. Whether, in the case of Massenet’s concerto, the pianist’s performance was to blame or not, it seems likely that by 1903 the musical tastes of Parisian audiences had moved on from Massenet’s old-fashioned contribution and it is not too surprising that the concerto, despite its charms, never found a place in the repertory.
Hahn’s piano concerto met with a similar fate to Massenet’s, although, in his case, Hahn undoubtedly had a more favourable advocate in the concerto’s dedicatee Magda Tagliaferro. Born in Petropolis, Brazil in 1893, Tagliaferro studied at the Paris Conservatoire winning a first prize in 1907 at the age of fourteen. By the time of her Paris début, the following year, Cortot had become her mentor. A glittering career followed and, from the evidence of her 1931 recording of the Mozart piano concerto in D major (K537), she was clearly a remarkably chaste and elegant performer for her time. Hahn worked extensively with her over several years and in 1937 she recorded the Hahn concerto with the composer conducting.
When I was approached to perform the Hahn piano concerto in 1993, my only knowledge of it was from that old 1937 recording. After months of waiting, what may have been the only surviving full-score of the work was tracked down in the United States. When it arrived, the hand-written score was liberally covered with markings in blue pencil and, most surprisingly, in several sections pages had been taped together. This, it appears, was the original score used by Hahn in his historic recording, and the work had been heavily cut for the occasion. Opening those pages and seeing for the first time Hahn’s complete score was a thrilling moment. Here then, is the first complete recording of the Hahn Piano Concerto, restored, at last, fifty years after the composer’s death.
Stephen Coombs © 1997
Other albums in this series
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 24 – Vianna da Motta
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67163
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 37 – Nápravník & Blumenfeld
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67511
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 38 – Rubinstein & Scharwenka
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67508
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67958