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Hyperion Records

CDA67064 - Fauré: Piano Music

Recording details: September 1994
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 1999
Total duration: 69 minutes 38 seconds

'… the best performances of this music I have heard. Her interpretations combine freedom and control in performances that range from the most tender lyricism to splendid flights of passion, all colored with subtlety and presented with artistry' (American Record Guide)

'Take, for instance, the Fourth Nocturne—in Stott's hands a suave miracle of purling pearliness, fraught with delicate hesitations and suppressed sighs, framing a muted climax in the very best taste. Ah, that belle époque twighlight … elegance, nostalgia!' (Fanfare, USA)

Piano Music
Fugue in A minor  [2'17]
Fugue in E minor  [2'08]

This delightful recital includes many favourites from Fauré's beautiful piano oeuvre. The recordings are taken from Kathryn Stott's complete set of Fauré's piano music.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The music of Gabriel Fauré is still to a large extent unknown compared to that of his compatriots Debussy and Ravel. Of course the serene and lovely Requiem is nowadays frequently performed and recorded, some of his scanty orchestral music is reasonably familiar (the ‘Pelléas’ music, Masques et Bergamasques and the Pavane), the chamber music is now to be heard more frequently than heretofore, and several of the songs are known and admired by discerning music-lovers. However, when one realizes that Fauré’s ‘Op numbers’ extend to 121—almost as many as Brahms or Beethoven—the extent of his neglect becomes apparent. These are reasons for this, none of them being that his music is in any way inferior, problematic or unworthy of attention. Quite the reverse; the cultivated and civilized world of Fauré has always found favour with listeners prepared to give their attention to his discreet and beautiful voice.

One of the reasons for Fauré’s comparative lack of audience-appeal is the choice of genres in which he worked. The bulk of his output consists of music in the smaller forms; the orchestra had little appeal for him, and this fact has effectively kept his name out of the larger concert halls to which, in the nature of things, the majority of the concert-going public are attracted. Not for him the exotic colours and rhythms of Images or the Rapsodie espagnole, the heady atmospheres of La Mer. True, he did produce an opera, Pénélope, of singularly fine quality, some incidental music and a few choral pieces, but the centre of gravity is to be found in his chamber music: sonatas for violin and cello, piano quartets and quintets, a piano trio, a string quartet, dozens of songs and a great deal of piano music.

From about 1883 the piano came to occupy a central position in Fauré’s work and, throughout his life, his writing for it faithfully reflected his growing stature and increasing refinement as an artist. It is rather startling to realize that the volume of his piano music at least equals that of Debussy and certainly surpasses Ravel’s. But whereas Debussy’s and Ravel’s piano music easily identifies itself in the memory by widely diverse and poetic titles, not a single piece by Fauré has an extra-musical title. There is no Cathédrale engloutie, Île joyeuse or Vallée des cloches in Fauré—merely Nocturnes, Barcarolles, Preludes, Impromptus, Valses-Caprices, a fine Theme and Variations and a few other items. (Perhaps the Dolly suite can be discounted since it is for piano duet.) Also, and perhaps unfortunately, none of the piano pieces has attracted a nickname, either by the composer or anybody else. Nicknames may be frowned upon by the purist but there is no doubt that they can be valuable in catching and holding the memory of the listener. One has only to think of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata to acknowledge the truth of that.

Another reason for the neglect of the piano music is the lack in his complete œuvre of a major work of substantial length around which a pianist could build a programme. Unlike Chopin, Schumann, Liszt or Brahms, for instance, he left no sonata. The same may be said of Debussy and Ravel, but they at least left suitable alternatives—mainly suites of movements (Le Tombeau de Couperin, Gaspard de la nuit, Images) or collections of pieces forming a satisfying whole (Debussy’s Préludes). Yet another contributing cause of Fauré’s neglect is the fact that whilst much of the music is technically challenging it is not obviously so, and therefore doesn’t attract the attentions of the international virtuoso. Nor is it easy enough for the average domestic pianist to essay. The highly personal harmonic idiom of Fauré involves the player in negotiating a myriad of ‘accidentals’ (often double sharps or flats), triplets, time changes and the like which puts much of the music beyond the easy reach of most domestic music-makers.

All of these reasons, then, have told against the acceptance of Fauré as a composer of the stature of his more famous compatriots. There is, though, yet another reason perhaps more powerful than these—the character of the music itself. There never was a less flamboyant or demonstrative man than Fauré, and this is reflected in his music where the gestures are restrained, the language civilized and urbane, the style polished. There is no trace whatsoever of ‘playing to the gallery’, no virtuosity for its own sake; the music makes its way by persuasion rather than emphasis. As Charles Koechlin wrote in his reverential monograph on his teacher (Gabriel Fauré, translated by Leslie Orrey and published in 1945 by Dennis Dobson Ltd): this music ‘never mocks or sneers, never makes its way by caricature. It is varied by the thousand sentiments touching love … but often, too, it is the intimate mingling of a hidden melancholy with a certain serenity. Sometimes, again, one is aware of a stormy night with dark eddies on the sea. Grief is not far from this essentially human work—nor even (though exceptionally) anger.’

This CD presents a selection of Fauré’s piano music from all periods of his long life. (He was born in 1845 and died in 1924, aged 79.) The earliest piece is the Romance sans paroles, the third of a set of three published in 1880 though written some seventeen years before that, probably in 1863 when the composer was eighteen. Its beguiling charm is typical of much early Fauré and may be dismissed too quickly by the over-sophisticated as ‘salon music’, a term which has for some reason become derogatory. Let it be remembered that the nineteenth-century ‘salons’ of Europe, and particularly Paris, were the meeting places of many of the most cultivated and artistic minds of the time, and the music heard therein was provided by many of the great composers of the age, among them Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn, perhaps the most obvious influence on this ‘song without words’.

Between 1881 and 1904 Fauré wrote six Impromptus of which the Second Impromptu, a rippling tarantella (though not so described) in F minor, is by far the most well known. Indeed it is probably the composer’s most popular composition for the piano.

The Nocturne, invented by the Irishman John Field and developed to perfection by Chopin, was also used by Fauré as the vehicle for his most profound writing for the piano. It was a form he returned to time and again throughout his life, and in all he left thirteen examples, ranging from simple ‘mood’ pieces to bleak and desolate essays in despair and resignation. Alongside them he also composed thirteen Barcarolles, lighter in feeling and less elaborate, though full of grace and fluidity. A typical example is the First Barcarolle, written in 1880 and published in 1881—a gentle picture of rippling water in A minor, broken by an effusion of Italianate melody in the C major middle section.

The First Nocturne is altogether more stern and inward-looking, as its E flat minor key signature would indicate. The first of three sharing the same opus number, the passions expressed here reveal the seeds from which the last desolate Nocturne of all was to grow forty years later. In ternary form, it begins in a dark and reflective mood, the harmonies already uniquely Fauréan. The second section introduces an ominous figure in the left hand over which the music becomes more agitated and passionate, and after rising to an expression of grief the piece ends in resignation and sadness.

The Third Nocturne is probably the most well known of the series. More overtly charming than the First, the thought of Chopin comes more readily to mind listening to this one than to any of the others. Less profound than its companions, the work is nevertheless perfectly wrought in elegance and refinement of expression.

The Fourth Nocturne which followed shortly afterwards is another of the ‘happy’ Nocturnes. It begins in a mood of quiet contentment with a theme of innocent joy, and the tolling minims in the rippling E flat minor middle section, whilst rising to a climax of romantic ardour, do not in any way disturb the gentle happiness of the piece.

The Sixth Nocturne is one of Fauré’s most celebrated works and its sublime perfection is revered by all who know it. The longest of the series, it dates from about 1894, that is shortly after La Bonne Chanson with which it shares the same rapturous expression. The basic A–B–A form favoured by Fauré for the Nocturnes is here extended by an extra episode before the final return of the languorous and miraculously beautiful opening theme.

Chronologically, the next piece on this recording to be written was the Barcarolle No 6, composed and published in 1896. Its lithe, voluptuous grace does not belie the increasingly ascetic character of the ageing composer. Charming and undeniably melodious though it is, the style of the later Fauré is now clearly showing through: unexpected modulations and a texture of lean, astringent, and profoundly original harmony.

The Eight Short Pieces were written at various times between 1869 and 1902 and published as a set in 1903. The individual titles were bestowed by the publisher, contrary to the composer’s wishes. Their moods are as fleeting as they are varied. The opening Capriccio is capricious indeed, and includes a harmonic twist at the end (bar 34) as nonchalant as it is acrobatic. In the two Fugues Fauré gravely doffs his hat to academe, while the Adagietto denies all promise of lightness. The Allegresse (Allegro giocoso), on the other hand, finds Fauré happily recalling the mood of La Bonne Chanson (1891/2), and the final Nocturne (repeated as No 8 in the great series of thirteen) brings the set to a flowing and serene end.

Twenty years separate that work from Fauré’s last, astonishing piano composition. Written in 1921, three years before his death, the tragic despair of the Thirteenth Nocturne shares its depth of feeling with few other works in the piano repertoire. Certainly nothing like this was written by Debussy or Ravel, and only in the last pages of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart or Bach can parallels be found to its austere heartbreak. The work can be regarded as autobiographical. For the last few years of his life the composer suffered from a distressing hearing defect which caused him to hear distortion in the higher frequencies of the sound spectrum. Knowing this, the chains of suspensions which open this last Nocturne take on an added significance. (One is reminded of the last movement of Smetana’s Quartet ‘From my life’ where the piercing high E of the violin symbolizes the sound he heard in his head; he suffered from tinnitus.) The piece as a whole is filled with a feeling of regret and valediction, with a vehement and angry middle section rising to a climax of the greatest fury. Because one knows and loves Fauré for his understating of such feelings, the unmistakable note of despair which this reveals is all the more affecting. It ends on a note of utter resignation, the music of a man on the threshold of death. This music does not reveal its secrets easily and at first may appear arid and academic. But the essence of Fauré is in it, and not until one has entered its tragic world can one truly be said to understand him.

This recital ends with a much earlier work. The enchanting Third Impromptu was composed at more or less the same time as the first three Nocturnes and is almost a perpetuum mobile. Beginning in A flat and modulating with dazzling virtuosity through related keys, such minor harmonic clouds as try to impede its progress are but the shadows of shadows and soon swept away in the infectious gaiety of its impetuous semiquavers.

Ted Perry © 1999

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