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Hyperion Records

CDA67875 - Fauré: Piano Music
Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
© Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: August 2012
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: September 2013
DISCID: F8111112 F7111112
Total duration: 72 minutes 48 seconds


'Hewitt's way with the Valses-caprices is scintillating and extrovert, most notably in the second waltz's swing-high, swing-low teasing sophistication … she is notably sensitive, too, to the openings of Nocturnes Nos 6 and 13, and to the latter's anguished utterance … Hewitt's excellently recorded disc (as bright as the playing) provides an invigorating modern alternative' (Gramophone)

'Take a French composer with a contrapuntal bent, whose music requires a rigour, poise and nuance akin to that of a ballet dancer. Then choose a pianist, such as Angela Hewitt, whose feel for all these qualities is a given. The result is an exquisite Fauré recital … Hewitt's clarity is exemplary. The purity and strong, supple backbone of her playing lets Fauré's inventive genius, his extraordinary sensitivity to colour, harmonic shading, texture and eloquence, shine on its own terms' (BBC Music Magazine)

'It is strange how little of Fauré’s piano music seems to be part of the regular repertoire nowadays compared with, say, Debussy or Ravel. It is even stranger when you hear it played with such captivating élan and finesse as by Angela Hewitt. With her radiant sparkle in two Valse-caprices, the sun seems to shine, and she traces a whole rainbow of moods through three nocturnes (Nos 5, 6 and 13), the early Ballade and the Thème et variations Op 73. Utterly delightful' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Those unfamiliar with Fauré's keyboard works will find that Hewitt's selection provides a perfect introduction, She is complemented by a fabulous recording quality and an instrument (her trusty Fazioli) that does her justice at every turn' (International Record Review)

'A very thoughtfully planned sequence, beautifully executed; the sharply contrasting characters of each of the variations are perfectly focused, while the joyous exuberance of the early Ballade sweeps all before it. She's equally precise and revealing in the apparently slighter works, too, finding just a hint of the danger that gives the French waltz its special edge in the Valses-caprices, and including two of the greatest of the nocturnes: the sixth in D flat major and the 13th in B minor, Fauré's last and profoundly tragic piano work. All these pieces are presented with exemplary clarity and wonderfully crystalline tone' (The Guardian)

'Hewitt knows that some regard the composer’s Nocturnes, Ballade, and Theme and Variations Opus 73 as 'salon' music, and sets out to prove that these short pieces are as complex and nuanced at heart as they are serene and accessible on the surface. Particularly masterly are the variations, the heartbreaking 7th and final 12th very lovely' (The Independent on Sunday)

'A thoughtful and satsifying Fauré selection traversing his career and showing his art in diverse hues … Hewitt's interpretations are powerful and poetic' (The Sunday Times)

'Hewitt brings not just an intimate grasp of the music’s harmonic and technical demands, but an essential refinement—most evident in the Theme and Variations, in which she finds élan, lightness and grandeur without overemphasising the differences between the 11 variations. As for the Valses-caprices, you can’t mistake Hewitt’s delight in the playful passage-work' (Financial Times)

'Angela Hewitt is totally sympathetic to Fauré's sometimes elusive world and her Fazioli piano is superbly recorded' (Liverpool Daily Post)

Piano Music
Theme: Thème  [1'58]

Angela Hewitt’s recordings of French piano music have received the highest critical acclaim, her ‘tenderness, Gallic wit, verve, and—the most important ingredient of all—charm’ proving perfect for works by Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel and indeed Rameau and Couperin. Now she turns to a composer who is more serious and introspective, with a refinement that has led to him being relatively overlooked by performers. But in Angela Hewitt’s hands this music is an utter joy.

This album includes the major work Thème et variations, Op 73—one of Faure’s greatest works for piano—and a selection of Valses-caprices and Nocturnes. It ends with a more radiant piece from Fauré’s youth, the earliest piece included on this recording—the Ballade pour piano seul, Op 19, dedicated to Saint-Saëns.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
For a long time I have wanted to record my favourite solo piano works by Gabriel Fauré. I was first introduced to his music at the age of fifteen when my teacher, Jean-Paul Sévilla, gave me the Ballade to learn. He was a great lover of Fauré’s music, and we were privileged to hear him perform so much of it in Ottawa, where I grew up. He introduced all his students not only to Fauré’s piano works, but also to the chamber music and especially the songs. I vividly remember buying the LPs of the complete mélodies and listening to them time and time again, following the words and translations (being an avid student of French). I passed many a happy hour in Fauré’s company. All of the works on this album I learned by my mid-twenties, and most of them much earlier. They are old friends.

When you mention the piano music of Fauré to people, whether they are professional musicians or not, you usually get one of two responses: either they don’t know it, or else they consider it to be little more than ‘salon’ music. Those who do know it, and who love it deeply, will defend Fauré’s artistry and achievements with great passion.

It is amazing to think that when Fauré was born in 1845 Schumann had just completed his Piano Concerto, Chopin had written his third Piano Sonata, and Berlioz La damnation de Faust. By the time Fauré died in 1924 Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire was already twelve years old. The world around him also became a different place during those eighty years. Fauré remained remarkably unaffected by political events, with the exception of World War I. In 1908, in a letter to his son, he wrote: ‘For me, art, and especially music, exists to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.’

A musician will recognize, within a few seconds, the music of Fauré. It is unmistakable thanks to its harmonic language and melodic contours. Along with the music of Bach, his piano works are among the most difficult for pianists to memorize. Constantly shifting harmonies, enharmonic changes pushed to the extreme, slight variants in passages that are otherwise similar—all of these things, added to the sheer technical difficulties, probably put a lot of people off. It is an art that is made, as one of his best biographers, Jean-Michel Nectoux, puts it, ‘of grandeur and refinement, in the image of that of Marcel Proust who would “become intoxicated” by this music, as he once wrote to Fauré’.

Like Debussy, Fauré was born into a non-musical family. They came from Ariège in southwest France. Gabriel was the sixth child, and not particularly wanted by his parents. At birth he was sent to a wet-nurse and didn’t see his family for four years. His first musical experience was from hearing the religious songs in the local convent, and playing around with its harmonium.

When Gabriel turned nine, his father was persuaded to send him to Paris to study in the new École Niedermeyer. At a time when composers like Meyerbeer and Spontini were all the rage, it was courageous of Louis de Niedermeyer to start a school where religious music above all was taught. Gregorian chant, Palestrina, the organ works of Bach—all of these became familiar to the young Fauré. When he won competitions at school, the scores he received as prizes included Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, Bach keyboard works and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The discipline was rigorous. It was not permitted to play Schumann or Chopin, whose music was considered unsuitable for young people. Practice had to be done in a room with fifteen pianos going at once.

When Niedermeyer died, the sadness of the fifteen-year-old Fauré was soon replaced by the joy of having a new piano teacher, just ten years his senior—Camille Saint-Saëns. A great friendship developed between the two and lasted until Saint-Saëns died in 1921.

Many great French composers earned at least part of their living as an organist, and Fauré was no exception. After leaving school he held several posts in churches in Rennes and Paris, including Saint-Sulpice, before going to La Madeleine where he stayed in one capacity or another for more than twenty-five years (from 1877 to 1905). Throughout his professional life he complained of never having enough time to compose. Married (not very happily), and with two children, he had to augment his organist’s salary by giving endless lessons and by becoming a school inspector. He complained to a friend that he spent at least three hours every day on trains, that he was sick to death of the Gare Saint-Lazare, and that he didn’t want to hear any more sonatas. Most of his composing was therefore done during the summer months and on vacation.

In 1892, when the position of professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire became vacant, Fauré was vehemently rejected by the director, Ambroise Thomas. It was only four years later that he got the post, and then in 1905 was named director, staying in that capacity for the next fifteen years. He was nicknamed ‘Robespierre’ for the multiple reforms he brought in. Among his pupils were Ravel, Enescu and Nadia Boulanger.

We open this album with the Thème et variations Op 73—Fauré’s longest and certainly one of his greatest pieces for solo piano. It was begun in the summer of 1895, most of which Fauré wasted lobbying for the job of music critic of France’s leading newspaper, Le Figaro (a post he finally got in 1903). Its premiere didn’t come, however, until December 1896 when it was performed by Léon Delafosse at St James’s Hall in London. Several things could have led Fauré to compose a set of variations at this time. No doubt he heard his friend Louis Diémer perform Rameau’s Gavotte et six doubles, which figured that year in his recitals. Saint-Saëns had just composed his Thème varié. But most likely it was Fauré’s love of Schumann and his Études symphoniques that was his greatest influence.

In the copy from which I learned the Thème et variations back in the 1970s, there were footnotes dating from when it was the test piece for the exams at the Conservatoire in 1910 (in which one of the First Prize winners was none other than Clara Haskil). Some cuts were suggested, and several variations were to be left out. There were also notations for an orchestration of the work by Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht when it was put on as a ballet, Rayon de lune (‘Moonbeam’), in 1928. I don’t really want to imagine either of these things.

The theme, in C sharp minor, is presented with march-like solemnity, becoming haunting in the second line when the dynamic falls to piano. The ascending scale of the opening is repeated after eight bars, but with different harmonies. We can already hear Fauré’s fondness for bass lines, the proper performance of which is essential in his music. In the first variation, the theme appears in the bass while the right hand weaves a filigree web in the high register. The second is scherzo-like, also giving room for the ‘cellos’ to shine. Energy builds in the third variation which combines duplets and triplets. Fauré insisted that they should be clearly defined. The fourth variation carries on the élan of the previous one, while capturing a haunted feeling in its middle section. The texture of the fifth is not easy to make clear: double thirds and double sixths abound in this unhurried waltz. The sixth is rather spooky, with the bass rising in octaves while the right hand descends in sighs. The seventh, eighth and ninth variations are all wonderful moments, with the latter expressing a rapturous stillness. This is broken by the very difficult tenth variation which demands great agility combined with precision, lightness, and a big reserve of power for its ending. The audience usually thinks this is the end, but it isn’t. In what can only be described as a moment of pure genius, Fauré switches to the major mode for his final variation which looks sparse on the page but is one of the most intense things he ever wrote. Every time I play it I get the shivers. As Robert Orledge writes in his excellent biography of the composer: ‘It raises the whole work onto a higher, almost religious plane … the chorale rises from its serenity to a climax of transcendental intensity, making the flashy excitement of the penultimate variation seem trivial in comparison.’

The first two of Fauré’s four Valses-caprices were, unsurprisingly, especially loved by Saint-Saëns. The second one, dedicated to the wife of one his best friends, André Messager, was a particular favourite of Paul Dukas and Isaac Albéniz (who asked to hear it played shortly before his death). They were written between 1882 and 1884, around the time of the composer’s marriage to the daughter of the sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet. I love the physical feel of playing this music—passing the melody between hands (Fauré was ambidextrous), the imaginative passagework and harmonies that encircle it, the rhythms of the dance, the surprising turns in the harmonies and the different colours that Fauré demands, the boisterous bits contrasted by moments of great tenderness. The second of the two is more sophisticated, especially in the middle section beginning in C sharp minor. The transformation of that rather shady, nightclub-ish tune into something exultant surely owes something to Liszt. For me these are underrated works that should be played more often.

The three Nocturnes that I have chosen for this recording are not only my particular favourites, but each comes from a different period of Fauré’s life: youth, maturity and old age. The complete cycle of thirteen Nocturnes spans his entire creative life, giving us a wonderful opportunity to see how his work developed. The Nocturne No 5 in B flat major, Op 37, is contemporary to the second Valse-caprice. The first phrase could only be Fauré, beginning in B flat major and ending in D major. The turbulent middle section in B flat minor (a rare key in Fauré’s music) has swirling arpeggios, and transforms the second of the opening themes in a most imaginative way, even presenting it at the climax in B major. As in all of Fauré’s music, there is a grace combined with a contained strength behind every note. He was always complaining that people played his music in the half-light. According to his son, Fauré played with ‘an iron hand in a velvet glove—and what velvet!’

The Nocturne No 6 in D flat major, Op 63, was written after a break of ten years, during which time both his parents died and he wrote his famous Requiem. It remains one of his most popular pieces for piano and a masterpiece in the piano literature. When asked where he found the inspiration to write the ecstatic opening, he replied ‘in the Simplon Tunnel’. One could write many words about this piece. Perhaps it is best simply to listen. As Nectoux points out, five years later Schoenberg wrote his Verklärte Nacht, and found this same ‘road of stars’ that we hear in the middle section, marked Allegro moderato.

The Nocturne No 13 in B minor, Op 119, is Fauré’s last piece for solo piano. It was finished in December 1921, just two weeks after the death of his old friend Saint-Saëns. Since 1903 Fauré had been suffering from severe hearing loss—one in which the highest and lowest tones were horribly distorted. Beginning like a Bach chorale, and not shunning dissonances in the beautiful part writing, it gives us only the essentials, insisting ever more vehemently as it progresses on the interval of the third that begins the piece. Another excellent Fauré biographer, Jessica Duchen, says this Nocturne ‘seems to stare death straight in the face’. The final four bars reach out with a final upward gesture, only to fall back in despair.

We finish this album with a more radiant piece from Fauré’s youth, the earliest piece included on this recording—the Ballade pour piano seul, Op 19, dedicated to Saint-Saëns. It was written in this original version for solo piano in 1879, at the same time as his first trip, together with Messager, to Munich to hear the complete 'Ring' cycle of Wagner. What makes the Ballade perhaps all the more beautiful is the suggestion of nature, rather than its actual depiction (as found in Act II of Wagner’s Siegfried, in the ‘Forest murmurs’ sequence). Originally conceived as a suite of separate pieces, the Ballade finally took on a unified form resembling that of Liszt’s piano concertos. In April 1881 Fauré finished a version of the work for piano and orchestra and played the premiere himself, conducted by Édouard Colonne. (I have frequently performed both—trying to remember which parts to leave out when I play it with orchestra!) In July 1882 Fauré met Liszt for the second time, in the company of Saint-Saëns, and presented him with the Ballade. Liszt, then seventy years old, gave up trying to play it after five or six pages, saying he didn’t have enough fingers, and asked the young composer to continue. Fauré’s style is already beautifully apparent in this work that is full of freshness, joy, enthusiasm and lyricism.

Angela Hewitt © 2013

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