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Hyperion Records

CDA67515 - Chabrier: Piano Music

Recording details: June 2004
Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: February 2006
Total duration: 75 minutes 54 seconds


'As to Hewitt's performances, they are as affectionate, warm, lyrical and charming as one could wish, underlining but not exaggerating Chabrier's deliciously predictable unpredictability' (Gramophone)

'Hewitt is at her best here, teasing out the yearning harmonies and shy cadences with a persuasive rubato' (BBC Music Magazine)

'It is very fresh-face playing, bringing out, also, Chabrier's acknowledged debt to the French Baroque keyboard giants, while even Bach seems to hang over the gigue-like Scherzo-valse … wit and charm are in abundance' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Angela Hewitt, in one of her best recordings to date, has captured Chabrier's musical spirit perfectly' (International Record Review)

'Pianists have missed some treats by neglecting Chabrier’s piano music. Angela Hewitt plays this refreshing selection with the same poetry, elegance and dancing touch that made her other French discs for Hyperion so special. The ten Pièces pittoresques take pride of place: dominated by sunshine, delightfully frisky rhythms and an early French Impressionist haze. Fed up of grey skies? Buy this disc and it’s already spring' (The Times)

'If you don't know Chabrier's piano music, then this is an ideal selection of his best (and best-known) works played with exactly the right amount of tenderness, Gallic wit, verve, and—the most important ingredient of all—charm' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hewitt is in excellent form throughout … well worth it, I'd say' (Fanfare, USA)

'In terms of recording, performance, and production, another success for the Hewitt-Hyperion collaboration' (MusicWeb International)

'Perhaps Angela Hewitt's freshly minted, sharply honed interprestations will inspire recitalists to dust off these unsung treasures' (

Piano Music

Fresh from her distinguished three-disc survey of Couperin, Angela Hewitt turns her attention to the piano music of Emmanuel Chabrier. An important influence for subsequent generations of French composers—most notably Ravel, who acknowledged his debt to the older composer—Chabrier’s music was appreciated more by his fellow artists than by the public. His best works—notwithstanding the popularity of his evergreen orchestral rhapsody España—deserve to be better known.

Chabrier was a sensitive soul, prone to weep on hearing a single chord of Wagner, yet he cultivated a gaiety and sense of joy that is clearly heard in his music. As one biographer wrote: “With Chabrier, burlesque went hand in hand with the sentimental; the picturesque was allied to the emotional.” Chabrier’s passion for painting was unmatched by any other composer, and he was friends with important artists of the day, including Manet, Monet, Sisley, Cézanne and Renoir. He had many of their paintings on his walls, and Manet’s celebrated A Bar at the Folies-Bergère—reproduced on the front cover of this recording—hung above his piano.

Chabrier’s most important works are for the piano. The ten contrasting and evocative Pièces pittoresques form the centrepiece of this recording, and were described by Poulenc as being “as important for French music as the preludes of Debussy”. The remaining works are charming and varied character pieces. All are played with style and affection by Angela Hewitt, who with her renowned warmth and communicative flair makes a very special case for this music.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’Never has an artist adored music more, sought to honour music more; no one has suffered from it more, and I shall suffer from it eternally.’ These lines would seem to have been written by a bitter composer, disillusioned, disappointed by his art. They were penned, however, by a merry, truculent, vivid and racy character who was full of fun—one of the most original of all French composers and one of the most misunderstood.

Emmanuel Chabrier—his name means goat-herd—was born in the Auvergne at Ambert near Velay in 1841. His father was a strict and intransigent lawyer, his mother a gentle woman, sensitive, artistic, refined. He was an only child and spent a happy childhood, fussed over by his parents and Nanine, one of those kind-hearted servants who used to exist at that time and who formed part of the family. His parents died within a week of each other before he had reached the age of twenty. He then transferred all his affection onto Nanine with whom he lived for the rest of his life.

Drawn to music from a very early age, he received his first piano lessons from a certain Zaporta, a Spanish émigré who probably gave him his life-long taste for Iberian music. But his parents never thought he could make a career in music which, at that time, was considered in the provinces to be merely a pastime. His father, therefore, put pressure on him to study law, and the biddable Emmanuel concluded his studies with good grace. He went to Paris at the age of twenty as a civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior, where he worked in exemplary fashion for almost twenty years.

Married in 1873, he had two sons and was a model family man, dividing his time after 1888 between Paris and La Membrolle, a little village in the Tours region where his mother-in-law owned a house and where he spent six months each year working in peace—which gave rise to an abundant and passionate correspondence with his family and the faithful Nanine.

1880 was an historic year in Chabrier’s life, for it was then that he discovered Wagner. He travelled to Germany many times to see the operas of his idol and became one of Wagner’s most passionate champions in France. It was the shock of discovering Wagner that made him realize that he was not a bureaucrat, as a result of which he handed in his notice at the Ministry. In 1882 he fulfilled the dream of his life and spent four months in Spain where he composed, among other works, the rather too celebrated España, the only piece of his known to the public at large. Chabrier, whose health had been gradually declining over many years, died in 1894 from general paralysis. He had just turned fifty-three.

What sort of a man was he? Physically alert, he had a mobile expression and was constantly restless; he was truculent, Rabelaisian and jovial. He himself said: ‘Ever since reaching the age of reason, I’ve cultivated gaiety: it’s the most beautiful of flowers, the one which makes you love life.’ This side of Chabrier is well known: ‘the joking angel’, as Vincent d’Indy called him. But this exuberance went hand in hand with an almost sickly sensibility which made him weep when, for example, he heard a single chord of Wagner’s music. He was a hard man with a tender heart; a tenderness that can be heard in most of his works, alongside the most unbridled and bohemian phrases. As one of his biographers wrote: with Chabrier, burlesque went hand in hand with the sentimental; the picturesque was allied to the emotional. Another biographer said of him that he concealed a sentimental young girl’s soul in the body of a stout water-carrier.

Fundamentally good and generous, deriving pleasure from the success of his colleagues, he nonetheless had a caustic side. To Benjamin Godard, who once said to him that it was a pity he had come to music so late, he was quick to reply that it was an even greater pity that he had come to music so early. That did not prevent him from having among composers such loyal friends as Vincent d’Indy, Duparc and Fauré. He was interested in painting from a very early age, and was the friend of Manet, Monet, Sisley, Cézanne and Renoir. When he died, there were more than thirty-eight masterpieces in his possession, including eleven Manets (one of them the celebrated A Bar at the Folies-Bergère reproduced on the cover of this booklet), eight Monets, six Renoirs, two Sisleys, two Forains and one Cézanne. The depth of his interest in painting was perhaps unique among composers, and this is something that we hear in his music.

The Impromptu, published in 1873, was his first significant work. Unlike many composers, whose early works betray quite legitimate influences, Chabrier is immediately himself. It is a classical piece constructed in three parts, the third of which reprises the first, and concludes with a coda. His personality is present in every bar. To begin with note the brief, capricious Spanish-like rhythmic element, which serves as an introduction and reappears at the end of the work. A passage then follows which could be described as the first subject, a sort of tender and syncopated waltz that is followed abruptly by a basically rhythmic second episode, full of typical Chabrier-like dissonances. The second section, charming and languid, is twice interrupted by a sarcastic element, as if Chabrier were ashamed of being sentimental. Again we note syncopated swaying rhythms. The first section is then repeated, followed by a very poetic coda marked ‘with great sweetness’ which restates the theme of the opening section. After a final sarcastic pirouette the work ends on an arpeggio that Chabrier requires to be played ‘with delicacy’. This Impromptu, dedicated to Mme Édouard Manet, was first performed by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1877.

Ronde champêtre, written around 1870, was originally included in the Pièces pittoresques. The title, along with those of other pieces, was probably not Chabrier’s but the publisher’s. The opening theme comes from Poussah’s aria from Fisch-Ton-Kan, the operetta written during 1864 in collaboration with Paul Verlaine. In A minor, unpolished and jerky in style, this theme is repeated three times in the guise of a refrain. A second motif in A major, of great sweetness, wrapped round with arpeggiated chords, is then repeated almost at once with slight variations. This is followed by a lively and staccato third motif in B flat, which starts piano before finally reaching an exalted ff, hammered out in octaves.

Chabrier’s Dix pièces pittoresques appeared in 1881. César Franck, who was present at the first performance, is reported to have said: ‘We have just heard something extraordinary. This music links our time with that of Couperin and Rameau.’ The individual titles of these pieces, as well as the name of the whole work, can seem inappropriate. It seems that most of them were chosen just before publication, doubtless to make the work more attractive to the public. Behind these titles, however, there is a work of great musical value.

The first piece, Paysage, has a tripartite structure, with the first section repeated at the end. It seems to evoke a peaceful walk in a harmonious landscape, hardly troubled by a capricious passage of dance-like rhythms. The whole of this first episode is based on a motif of few notes, and Chabrier adopts a procedure, which he clearly did not invent but on which he leaves his own indelible mark: the melody rings out simultaneously in the right and left hands at a distance of two octaves. Then we hear the second section, without warning and without any connection with what we have just heard, which makes us wonder what sort of landscape Chabrier could be evoking.

Mélancolie is a most apt title. A mere eighteen bars long, it is one of the jewels of the collection. The most expressive theme, marked ‘tenderly’, is given to the right hand in the upper register of the piano and then repeated—a little transformed—with the melody played by both hands in syncopation. Of particular note is a very successful passage where the theme is presented as an echo. After a more animated outburst, the work appears to end loudly, but no: in the final bar the piano falls silent deep in the bass, as if suspended in a void.

Tourbillon is one perpetual movement of triplets, interrupted by fortissimo chords which break the ternary rhythm of the piece. The following Sous-bois is Chabrier’s most prophetic piece, and the most difficult of all his works to understand—making him the precursor of the entire Impressionist school. Over a basso ostinato, which hardly ever changes, Chabrier strings out notes that don’t properly constitute a theme but which create a pronounced hazy atmosphere, inspired no doubt by the canvases of his painter friends.

Mauresque must have been so-named because of the fashion of the time, which prized works with an exotic touch—compare the success of orientalist painters. The work is characterized above all by an omnipresent dotted rhythm. In moderate time, the graceful style almost makes it a menuet, even more so than the Menuet pompeux that follows later. The absence of augmented seconds—an interval characteristic of Moorish music—means that this piece does not really reflect its title.

Idylle follows, the jewel of the set. It is a piece of utter delicacy, charm, tenderness and poetry. Chabrier requires it to be played with freshness and naivety. A very simple and moving melody, played legato, is delicately accompanied by two other voices, played slightly staccato. The piano writing is of great refinement and novelty. When Francis Poulenc first heard this piece on an early type of juke box, he never forgot the moment, later saying that for him it opened up ‘a new harmonic world’. Danse villageoise is, in striking contrast, solidly constructed, bursting with health and filled with the rhythm of Auvergne clogs. The middle section is of great refinement, curiously and awkwardly accented on the last note of each bar.

There is an incredible variety of moods and styles in this collection of Pièces pittoresques. Improvisation is descended directly from Schumann with the same Schwung, passion and Romanticism, and of course typical Chabrier hallmarks. The composer’s marking of fantasque et très passionné is significant. And in the course of the piece he adds ‘with impetuosity’. The basic melodic cell is extremely short, and practically the whole piece is constructed on these few notes. True to his temperament, Chabrier intersperses these ardent and passionate phrases with a few bars of exquisite tenderness which are not unlike certain Fauréan harmonies. The work ends with these delicately played bars—quite different from the brilliant peroration we might have expected.

The Menuet pompeux is, in effect, neither a minuet nor stately: it respects the tripartite form of the minuet but not its spirit. We are a long way from the precious and elegant courtly dance: these passionate dance-steps and the displaced accents which deliberately break the fearless rhythm of the minuet are more reminiscent of an Andalusian zapateado. As for the epithet ‘stately’, more appropriate alternatives may include ‘wild’ or ‘grating’. Chabrier’s later marking—‘with vigour’—simply does not accord with the character one would expect from a minuet. We move without transition to the central episode, which would indeed possess the graceful character of a minuet if its rhythm did not systematically disrupt the development. The first beat never falls in its expected place, which creates a curiously unstable effect—no doubt poetic, but which is at variance with the title of the piece.

The glowing Scherzo-valse is a fitting conclusion to this suite. Everything here breathes unequivocal gaiety and the most unbridled truculence, including the quieter second episode, despite the pattering of its staccato notes. Seven years after composing the Pièces pittoresques, Chabrier orchestrated four of them under the title of Suite pastorale: ‘Idylle’, ‘Danse villageoise’, ‘Sous-bois’ and ‘Scherzo-valse’.

Aubade comes to us straight from Spain—in the same way as Ravel’s later Alborado del gracioso—with its guitar-like pizzicatos, its outbursts and drum rolls, and a more lyrical, almost improvised middle section. The work seems to end sweetly, until we are surprised by the almost brutal final few bars. It was written in 1883, the year after his four-month stay in Spain.

The three posthumous pieces recorded on this CD were published in 1897. Ballabile is a sort of waltz with a throbbing motif, sufficiently short for its repetitive music not to be boring. The title of Caprice suggests a quick, bounding piece, but instead Chabrier gives us a strangely slow and declamatory work, with no apparent difficulties: written for a sight-reading competition, it is quite unlike any other work by Chabrier. Feuillet d’album is a tender, sensitive elegy where once again we find the typical Chabrier style, with a single melody played in unison in the treble and bass. It is a short but far from negligible piece.

The Habanera, like the tango with which it shares the same rhythm, is a voluptuous, indeed lascivious Spanish dance borrowed from Cuba (La Habana is the Spanish name for the island’s capital). Its principal theme is simple, but it reappears in an unexpected modulation in E major (the work is in D flat) and is then embellished with an ingenious counter-melody in the left hand—with the happiest of results.

The Bourrée fantasque is Chabrier’s final work for the piano and justifiably the most celebrated. It was composed in 1891, following a journey Chabrier made to his native Auvergne, the traditional dance of which is the Bourrée. The epithet seems badly chosen, unless Chabrier used ‘fantasque’ in the German sense of ‘fantasy’ and ‘phantasmagoric’. There seems to be a connection between this work and the celebrated frescoes of the Dance of Death in the Chaise-Dieu Abbey, close to Chabrier’s home town. Chabrier dedicated the work to the eighteen-year-old pianist Édouard Risler, warning him that each note presented a particular difficulty to be overcome, and that he had counted 113 different sonorities in the piece! The first part consists almost entirely of motifs of repeated notes (similar to the Andalusian zapateado) interspersed with tiny ascending phrases played staccato. Once again we encounter Chabrier’s inordinate penchant for staccato playing, which gives a percussive and very modern character to his works. The second section is, as it should be, more lyrical and expressive with sporadic violent episodes and repeats of the initial zapateado. The end is a veritable firework display in sound.

Chabrier’s ambition was to write operas, a genre to which he devoted the best part of his time, thus depriving us of an even more extensive repertoire for the piano. But the quality of the work he has given us is worth more than a simple detour, and his music deserves to be better known.

Jean-Paul Sévilla © 2006
English: Roland Smithers

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