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Hyperion Records

CDS44601/4 - Fauré: The Complete Music for Piano
Landscape near Menton (1883) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
(Originally issued on CDA66911/4)

Recording details: September 1994
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2014
DISCID: 7B122319 D411BA0E FB10A210 1F10CF16
Total duration: 295 minutes 3 seconds


'Sumptuously recorded. A true and dedicated Francophile … [Kathryn Stott] is clearly among the more stylish and intriguing of all young pianists' (Gramophone)

'A tremendous achievement' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A revelation' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'One of the most purely pleasurable releases of the year so far. The playing is intelligent, persuasive, loving, and the music reaches far beyond the standard boundaries of fin de siècle French salon style. Four outstanding discs' (The Independent)

‘I never expect to hear this music better done’ (Classic FM Magazine)

'She deserves an honoured place beside the most distinguished Fauré exponents … a major achievement in every way' (Classic CD)

'A major contribution to the recorded literature of French piano music, strongly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Cette superbe version insurpassé peut-être quant à la transparence et la musicalité' (Diapason, France)

The Complete Music for Piano
Kathryn Stott (piano) 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
Theme: Thème  [2'07]
No 3: G minor  [4'05]
No 4: F major  [1'46]
No 5: D minor  [2'12]
No 7: A major  [2'56]
No 8: C minor  [1'05]
No 9: E minor  [3'03]

This welcome release presents Fauré’s complete music for piano, in benchmark performances by Kathryn Stott, at budget price. 4 hours and 56 minutes of pure pleasure.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Fauré’s neglect—to this day he is often considered a ‘poor country cousin’ of Debussy and Ravel—remains one of music’s oddest, most elusive mysteries. Yet the difficulties posed by a composer who deliberately courted ambiguity, whose musical language is simultaneously radical and conservative, and who—while undoubtedly original—was hardly a modernist, are considerable. Even in his earliest music Fauré modulates and effects the most astonishing, elliptical transitions with a feline ease and grace that can fox even the most aurally acute performer and leave his listeners stranded; bothered and bewildered rather than bewitched. The early Nocturnes and Barcarolles, too, were intimately if obliquely connected with the commedia dell’ arte world of masked figures, balls, moonlit balconies, amorous confidences, passions and trysts phrased in a language of riddling sophistication and artificiality; one where Verlaine’s serenaders in Fauré’s song Mandoline,

Tourbillonnent dans l’extase
D’une lune rose et grise,
Et la mandoline jase
Parmi les frissons de brise.

Fauré himself in his often diffident and self-deprecating way may well have dismissed such a relationship as fanciful. Like his beloved Chopin (who once described the macabre finale of his ‘Funeral March’ Sonata as ‘two voices chattering together in unison’, leaving others to speak of ‘a network of rooks in the twilight’ or ‘winds whispering over graveyards’), Fauré could be plain-speaking. The titles of his piano works—Nocturnes, Barcarolles, Preludes, Impromptus and the like—suggest his Chopinesque bias, and his music fails or succeeds without recourse to glamorous evocation or fancy. Yet at the same time Fauré’s idealization of some forever distant and roseate past not only creates a sense of distance or archaism but is expressed in a language which combines ancient modes with modern conventions giving a distinctive and elusive flavour. The listener expects one thing but is offered another so that once again he can easily find himself in a limbo, a musical no man’s land. Fauré’s love of broken chords, of endlessly delayed resolutions and a ceaseless flow of invention (a flow that takes on a near-symbolic import) has caused his detractors to speak of ‘verse innocent of punctuation’ and to complain, particularly concerning his later works, of an obsessive love of sequence and of crabbed and tortuous progressions sufficiently repetitive to crystallize into mannerisms. Yet such attacks surely miss their target. Virtually all Fauré’s works, whether early, transitional (Barcarolle No 5 or Nocturne No 7) or late, show a language evolving with increasing subtlety, assurance and inclusiveness, even when threatened and challenged by the dark and eroding forces of his final years. And it is these years that have proved such a sticking point for many musicians.

Pianists happy to charm their audience with the surface brio and civility of, say, Impromptu No 2 (one of Fauré’s few piano works to have achieved anything close to popularity) are silent when it comes to the Preludes, late Nocturnes, Barcarolles, and Impromptus Nos 4 and 5, fearing to have all credence or connection with their admirers abruptly severed. For here, surely, is music expressing such private passion and isolation, such alternating anger and resignation, such volatility and introspection, that listeners are left uneasy, unsure of their own, or Fauré’s musical ground; anxious for a greater sense of musical terra firma.

Not surprisingly, biographical considerations are inseparable from Fauré’s final and unique mix of courage and despair. Hopeful that his music would be heard and appreciated after his death, he remained conscious of present neglect. His publisher’s wife used unsold Nocturnes and Barcarolles for jam-jar covers and during his lifetime Fauré frequently found himself consigned to near oblivion. He spoke of pianists (of Cortot in particular) who ‘allow my music to pile up without actually playing it’, and the difficulty he had in composing (‘it is like a sticking door that I have to open’) only added to his sense of dilemma. The trauma of his father’s death and his own ever-encroaching deafness (‘I am shattered by this illness; it is disrespectful or, at the least, hardly thoughtful to speak of Beethoven’) shrouded him in ‘a terrible cloak of misery’. There is evidence, too, that Fauré’s marriage quickly became tired and mundane, hardly fulfilling the needs of such a fervent and sensitive man. Yet despite enduring such galling circumstances he was still able to draw on his own spirit, on what Gerard Manley Hopkins so memorably called ‘the selfless self of self, most strange, most still’. The last Nocturnes, in particular, do indeed mirror a dark night of the soul, yet even these works are pierced with sudden shafts of light, with codas that radiantly or defiantly suggest how Fauré’s capacity to order and articulate such emotional complexity exorcised many of his darkest fears.

The six Impromptus (1881–1909) are not only true to their title but traverse Fauré’s creative life. No 1, ornate and virtuosic with its breathless flight of short and long phrases and its central elaboration, prompted Cortot (most fanciful and acute of commentators) to speak of ‘sunlit water’ and a ‘stylized coquetry and regret’. No 2, a whirling tarantella, is less richly decorated, more texturally transparent, while No 3 is among Fauré’s most idyllic creations, its principal idea dipping and soaring above a gyrating, moto perpetuo accompaniment, its central idea ‘like an avenue of fans folding and unfolding’. The change from such liberating caprice in Nos 4 and 5 is sharp indeed. In No 4 the sense of ideas allowed to blossom and expand, as if across some magical trellis, is subdued into an attenuated and feverish utterance. Dedicated to Marguerite Long (one of Fauré’s few early champions) it seethes with an unrest fully confirmed in No 5 with its spin of whole-tone scales, its defiant rather than tentative break with convention. Impromptu No 6 is a transcription of a work for harp, its original glitter arguably acquiring greater strength and colour in its new setting, its central meno mosso retaining a supple and authentic beauty.

For those who find the Fauréan ‘evanescence’ of Impromptus Nos 4 and 5 unsettling, the Thème et variations (1895) are reassuring. It is not that their Schumannesque theme (modelled on the Études symphoniques) is conventionally exploited, but that, for the greater part, Fauré resolutely retains his home key. A gentle rain of semiquavers in Variation I gives way to an animated syncopation in Variation II, extended to rapid alternations of duple and triple time in Variation III. Variation IV rejoices in candid virtuosity, with leaping grace notes accentuating the pace of events, while Variation V, despite its outwardly passive quavers, increases rather than diminishes such momentum. Variation VI dramatically stills this activity, proceeding in solemn, twice-decorated contrary motion, while Variation VII is a gentle double and quadruple canon. Variation VIII is a modification of Variation V (a case of wheels within wheels) and Variation IX, the nodal and expressive centre, was memorably described by Cortot as ‘a dark, lifted ecstasy, where on the high G sharp, the curve of the melody, the heart sinks down like a star in the evening’. Variation X is a glinting and ironic rather than playful scherzo with an explosive close, while Variation XI is an epilogue, concluding the Variations on a note of serene and optimistic benediction.

The Trois romances sans paroles (c1863), Fauré’s first published piano compositions, form an affectionate and very Gallic tribute to Mendelssohn’s urbanity, agitation and ease, whereas the four Valses-caprices (1882–1893/4) allow him to exploit all of his improvisatory cunning to the full (Colette once described how Fauré and Messager loved to improvise duets, ‘rivalling each other in their sudden modulations and evasions of the tonic’—a revealing comment). More ‘caprice’ than ‘waltz’, all four examples (and particularly the enchanting third) somehow combine and extend the scintillating worlds of Chopin and Saint-Saëns waltzes, mocking a flat-footed three-in-a-bar before whirling us away in some of music’s most aerial virtuosity. Tirelessly exuberant when not basking in emotional languor, Fauré gives us variation first and theme second, developing such jocularity into music of ever increasing refinement in Nos 3 and 4. In No 3 a mere four bars are enough for him to allow the music to slide far away from the basic G flat tonality, a premonition of the central episode where the principal subject and an added bell-like motif are joined and sent soaring skywards into a rarefied harmonic region, an episode of astonishing suppleness and intricacy. Here, then, is lightness rather than levity, a luminous sporting with the keyboard.

The thirteen Barcarolles (1880–1921) are second only to the thirteen Nocturnes in offering a comprehensive survey of Fauré’s art. Listening or playing through from Opus 26 to Opus 116 is to be made aware of one of music’s most remarkable journeys: from Gounod-inspired lyricism through the intricacies of Barcarolle No 5 to the final offering, a work which somehow resolves all former complexity in music of the strangest and most unearthly transparency, an unforgettable farewell or valediction.

Even Barcarolle No 1 with its conventional 6/8 Venetian lilt is immediately coloured by dissonance, an enlivening of a superficially candy-sweet surface. As early as Barcarolles Nos 2 and 3, with their Italianate profusion of detail (the latter with ornaments which ‘crown the theme like sea foam’, according to Marguerite Long), Fauré’s writing is in a constant state of harmonic and rhythmic flux. Barcarolle No 4, though far less ambitious, modulates with sufficient novelty to delight those in search of poetic liberation, but once again Fauré effects a ‘change into something rich and strange’ in No 5. Here melody and rhythm (fragmented at the opening into terse, syncopated phrases) become virtually interchangeable, and the central tortuous development, commencing tranquillamente but rising to a Lisztian fortissimo uproar (one of two imposing climaxes) subsides in a coda like shifting sunset vapour, a close as astonishing as it is deeply assuaging. No 6 is relatively carefree, weaving its way from one idea to another before No 7 closes the door on such charm. Strange indeed both in sight and sound, its themes emerge wraith-like before being erased. In Nos 8, 10 and 11 one again senses Fauré’s musical style at its most recondite, his increasing compression often resulting in the most discordant juxtapositions. No 9 turns the lilting and romantic Barcarolle rhythm to morbid advantage and, like No 11 (that most remarkable of all the Barcarolles), simultaneously suggests momentum and a constant thwarting of impetus. It is therefore with some relief that one reaches No 12, a great favourite of Fauré’s (‘I composed it by licking it over like a bear does her cubs’), its fundamentally serene and marine motion leading to the final and profoundly conciliatory Barcarolle.

It was Liszt who found the Ballade pour piano seul (1877–1879) ‘too difficult’, referring to the version for solo piano before its later transformation in a more popular and lucid version for piano and orchestra. Presumably he meant that the writing was intricate without being virtuosic, that the material was too fragile and exquisite for public consumption. Even Liszt, a dazzlingly perceptive and generous critic, must have been baffled by the presence of so many difficulties in a piece unlikely to win prolonged plaudits. Meanwhile Debussy’s dismissal of the Ballade as ‘about as erotic as a woman’s loose shoulder-strap’ says more about his own insecurity than about one of Fauré’s most charming pieces: a reminder of halcyon, half-remembered summer days and bird-haunted forests.

Fauré’s greatest piano works, the Nocturnes and Barcarolles, both number a lucky thirteen. The title, ‘Nocturne’, is again more convenient than precise, an evocation of alternating light and darkness, of passion and serenity, and the pieces have a tendency to follow Chopin’s example in contrasting tranquil outer sections with central episodes of greater turbulence or animation (Nos 2, 5, 6 and 13 are all richly varied examples of this structure). Nocturne No 1, which, as so often with Fauré, turns a potential commonplace (the left-hand vamped accompaniment) to advantage, is cloistered and elegiac, though with a central section where eddying sextuplets stalk and menace the right-hand melody. Fauré’s love of syncopation is at its most gentle in No 3, his nostalgia lit by passion continued through No 3 to No 4 (a Nocturne which Cortot found rather too satisfied with its own languor). Nocturne No 5 delights in its iridescence (that tantalizing A flat in bar 2, the unexpected arrival on E natural in bar 5 and the resolution of such tricky manoeuvring in the A natural of bar 7). No 6 ranks among the most rich and eloquent of all Fauré’s piano works, wandering as if absent-mindedly from the home key only to return to it with magical resource, and including an allegro moderato alive with the bird-song of the Ballade. All such luxury of endlessly evolving phrases gives way in Nocturne No 7 to a bleaker utterance, one where one can almost feel Fauré fighting towards the light, beset with an increasing sense of doubt and despair. Here, once more, is that sable world of attenuated sentences and sudden anger, though it is unforgettably resolved in a dreaming coda, where emotion is truly ‘recollected in tranquillity’.

Souvenirs de Bayreuth (c1888), a quadrille for piano duet, shows Fauré thumbing his nose at the cult of Wagnerism, but the Huit pièces brèves (1869–1902) are a collection of moods 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 in the great series of thirteen) brings the set to a flowing and serene end.

In Dolly (1894–1897) Fauré momentarily recaptures a world of childhood innocence unclouded by adult pain or excess. Composed for Hélène Bardac (the daughter of Emma Bardac) the ‘Berceuse’ is followed by ‘Mi-a-ou’, a waltz-scherzo playfully recalling Hélène’s ‘Messieu Aoul’, the name she gave her brother Raoul. ‘Le jardin de Dolly’ (a New Year’s present for Hélène) with its quote from the first Violin Sonata, is followed by ‘Kitty-valse’, a tender offshoot from the Valses-caprices, while ‘Tendresse’ (a peculiarly untranslatable French word) reflects Fauré’s affection for his friend’s daughter. Finally, a Spanish dance, ‘Le pas espagnol’, in which Fauré, like so many of his most distinguished musical compatriots (Debussy, Ravel and Chabrier, for example) pays tribute to the vibrancy and colour of France’s exotic next-door neighbour.

The Nine Preludes (1910–1911) rank among Fauré’s most elusive masterpieces. The cool serenity of No 1 is contradicted by the central section’s slow and painful climbing, while the ‘Saint Vitus’s danse’ of No 2, with its syncopated chords snapping at the dancer’s heels ends in calm. No 3 is a supreme instance of how Fauré’s lyrical eloquence can be thwarted or broken, creating an agony of incompleteness. Here the incomparable master of fluidity, of the long lyric line, expresses a state close to inarticulacy. No 5 is turbulent indeed, while Prelude No 6 was greatly admired by Aaron Copland, its impersonality doubtless appealing to a composer bred in Nadia Boulanger’s neo-Classical tradition. No 7’s stammering and halting progress again suggests a grief that nothing can assuage. No 8 is a repeated-note scherzo journeying from nowhere to nowhere, while No 9 concludes the set in a mood of uneasy truce.

Fauré’s solitary Mazurka (c1875) is an early, idiosyncratic tribute to Chopin. The trio is notably appealing, the nostalgic, over-the-shoulder glance at a revered master charming. But it is significant that, unlike Chopin who wrote fifty-eight Mazurkas, Fauré never repeated the experiment.

The final Nocturnes form a summa of Fauré’s art. And although Nocturne No 11 is an elegy, composed in memory of Noémie Lalo, wife of the critic Pierre Lalo, its tolling funeral bells surely echo Fauré’s own state of heart. Nos 9 and 10, too, find him wrestling with the malaise that overtook him in his final years, where what has been called the ‘premier matin du monde’ atmosphere of earlier times is conjured out of existence with a slow central climb in Nocturne No 10 that inhabits a world of nightmare. In No 12, with its sudden descents and strenuous attempts at stability, the ecstatic song of No 6 is transformed in a central section where lyricism is soured by dissonance, held up as it were to a distorting mirror. Finally Nocturne No 13, a truly epic completion of the the series: the funereal overtones of the outer sections quickly accelerate into a frenetic, wildly cascading uproar before a coda where that insistent note of elegy reaches its final apotheosis—one where grief and courage are indissolubly united.

Recognition of Fauré’s genius has been slow indeed. But the time has surely come when Copland’s elegant and suggestive reference to ‘intensity on a background of calm’ takes precedence over Debussy’s sniping and misleading estimate. Recordings of Fauré’s piano music have been few and far between, and so Kathryn Stott’s comprehensive offering is doubly welcome. Here one can consider and re-evaluate a composer once described as possessing ‘that mysterious gift that no other can replace or surpass: charm. In and around him, all was seductive. Very tanned of face, with dark eyes and hair, he had a dreamy, melancholy air, illuminated now and then by the youthful twinkle of a street-urchin. The sound of his voice was soft and deep.’ Such delectable personal qualities were, on the other hand, complemented by the mature assurance of Fauré’s final feeling, ‘J’ai reculé les limites du raffinement’, and again, in his own moving words: ‘I have done what I could … and so, judge, my God.’

Bryce Morrison © 1995

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