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Hyperion Records

CDA30029 - Fauré, Debussy & Ravel: Piano Trios
Trois Musiciens (c1906) by Henry Caro-Delvaille (1876-1926)
Sotheby’s Picture Library
Recording details: March 1999
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 64 minutes 47 seconds


'A delightful grouping of French trios from the Gramophone Award-winning Florestan's, who breathe fresh life into these works … top of my list' (Gramophone)

'It's a lovely recital; I've never been so convinced that the Debussy's worth hearing, and the Ravel is full of delicate delights' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Fresh from their triumph at the Gramophone Awards with Schumann, the Florestans turn their attention to the French trio repertoire and, in particular, to a composer with whom pianist Susan Tomes and cellist Richard Lester have an especial affinity: Gabriel Fauré. Of the three works presented here, the Fauré is the latest (1923), but stylistically the D minor Trio is as conservative as the G minor Trio of the 18-year-old Debussy, although Fauré's late essay in the form is unquestionably the greater work. The Florestans play both with a rhythmic urgency in the fast movements and rapt concentration in the Andantinos that take the breath away. They are even finer in Ravel's masterpiece, playing with a technical bravura and sheer panache to match the greatest interpreters of this work on disc. Another absolute winner' (The Sunday Times)

'Such flair proves The Florestan Trio, if proof is needed, to be among the finest chamber ensembles of the present day. Outstandingly imaginative performances, finely recorded' (Classic CD)

'Beautifully wrought performances. Rendered with natural empathy and graceful ensemble-playing, the Florestan’s playing is quite glorious' (Fanfare, USA)

'The Florestans, exhibiting their trademark finesse, taste and sensitivity, fully demonstrate why they are one of the most highly prized of new ensembles' (The Scotsman)

'Excellent' (Hi-Fi News)

'From impressive to breathtaking' (What Hi-Fi?)

30th Anniversary Series
Fauré, Debussy & Ravel: Piano Trios
Andantino  [9'06]
Allegro vivo  [4'23]
Modéré  [8'55]
Final: Animé  [5'14]

The three trios on this disc are the work of, respectively, a teenager, a nearly-forty-year-old and a seventy-seven-year-old. So it's understandable not only that the difference in musical language is even greater than the composers' names might suggest, but that each may be heard as having a different significance within its composer's oeuvre.

To modern ears the Debussy trio appears to be nothing like the mature Debussy we know, but more like Delibes. Although maybe no more than salon music, it gives immediate pleasure If this Trio shows us a young composer in search of his technique, Ravel's trio shows us a middle-aged one exulting in his. A wonderfully written piano trio which in the hands of The Florestan Trio shows a work of true magic. Likewise the Fauré—a trio written at the end of his life and showing the profound and austere characteristics of his last works.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The three trios on this disc are the work of, respectively, a teenager, a nearly-forty-year-old and a seventy-seven-year-old. So it’s understandable not only that the difference in musical language is even greater than the composers’ names might suggest, but that each may be heard as having a different significance within its composer’s oeuvre.

Debussy had entered the Paris Conservatoire in the autumn of 1872 at the age of ten. His parents had hopes of his becoming a piano virtuoso and removing them from the genteel poverty to which his father’s mercurial temperament had committed them. Although Debussy won a second prize for piano-playing in 1877, the first prize continued to elude him, and two years later, when he failed to win any sort of piano prize, they had to admit their dream would never be fulfilled.

But despite this setback, Debussy’s piano teacher, Antoine Marmontel, took note of his first prize in score-reading in 1880 (the only first prize Debussy was ever to win at the establishment until his Prix de Rome in 1884) to recommend him to Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Nadejda von Meck, who was looking for a pianist to accompany her and her children on their travels. He joined her at Interlaken on 20 July and two days later she wrote to Tchaikovsky telling him of the arrival of ‘a young pianist who has just won first prize in Marmontel’s Conservatoire class’—which was untrue—and that ‘although he only looks sixteen, he says he’s twenty’—also untrue: he was rising eighteen. If we are charitable, we may prefer to link Debussy’s loose handling of facts to the report accompanying his triumph in the score-reading exam, which spoke of him as being ‘un peu fantaisiste’ but as having ‘beaucoup d’initiative et de verve’.

Mme von Meck’s requirements at Interlaken, and again at Arcachon where the family moved in early August, were quite specific. He was to give piano lessons to her children, accompany her twenty-seven-year-old daughter Julia, who was a singer, and play piano duets with herself. On 18 August, a duet rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony left her in a state of nervous collapse (pre-echoes of Proust’s Mme Verdurin), but she had only praise for Debussy’s sight-reading abilities. At the same time he ‘ne le joua pas bien’ which must mean that, for all his digital accuracy, she recognised in him an instinctive lack of empathy with Tchaikovsky’s hysterical temperament. One thinks of Debussy’s later characterisation of the ideal French music as generating ‘emotion without epilepsy’.

From Arcachon, the party moved on through Paris, Nice, Genoa and Naples to Florence, where they arrived on 19 September. It was from here that Mme von Meck sent Tchaikovsky a Danse bohémienne her young pianist had written some time during the summer and which the master judged to be ‘a nice piece, but too short, with themes that never get anywhere and a defective form that lacks unity’. This criticism is certainly just, even if the complaint that Debussy’s music ‘never gets anywhere’ was to persist over far greater works than this one.

At the Villa Oppenheim in Florence, the family was joined by the cellist Danilchenko, who had just finished studying at the Moscow Conservatory, and the violinist Pachulsky, who also took on some secretarial duties. A well-known photograph shows the three looking suitably serious and dutiful: Debussy sent a copy home to his parents, inscribed ‘I send this young man to bring you my kisses and all my love’.

It seems the trio was required to perform every evening. We don’t know what their repertoire was, but it can be assumed that Beethoven and Schubert formed some part of it, together with Russian music. If they played Tchaikovsky, it can only have been in arrangements because he did not write his only piano trio until two years later, and then at Mme von Meck’s insistence. ‘I will not conceal from you,’ he wrote from Rome in 1881, once the beginning was written, ‘that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form.’ In the meantime though, the young Debussy had stolen a march on him and, during September and October, had written his own Trio in G major—possibly prompting Mme von Meck’s desire to have something similar from her protégé?

She mentions in her correspondence Debussy’s criticism of German music as being ‘too heavy and unclear’ and his Trio bears out this preference for lightness and clarity. Perhaps he was determined that here, at least, he and his colleagues should have some fun. Certainly all three players have their opportunities for tunes and for a certain amount of display. To modern ears it sounds nothing like the mature Debussy; more, at times, like Delibes, whose music was a mainstay of the Conservatoire score-reading class and was, moreover, highly approved by Tchaikovsky. The second movement, in particular, conjures up visions of footlights and tutus, its pizzicatos serving as a kind of mid-point between Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s String Quartet.

The work cannot be said to be anything more than salon music, written to give immediate pleasure, and as such does not merit deep analysis. Enough to note the features which, while here appearing sometimes as weaknesses, Debussy was later to transform into strengths: his penchant for four-bar phrases that sit down at the end of the last bar and wait for someone to do something, which in his mature work were to be crucial in engendering a contemplative passivity; his reliance on pedal notes, throwing decorative elements into relief; and a tendency towards modal melodic patterns, here too often unintegrated with the surrounding material and with a slightly forced, fake black-and-white aroma, but which, handled with mastery over a decade later, would help lend Pelléas et Mélisande its distinctive atmosphere of far away and long ago. And through it all, enough ‘fantaisie’ to keep everyone happy.

If this Trio shows us a young composer in search of his technique, Ravel’s Trio shows us a middle-aged one exulting in his. Debussy was no doubt too inexperienced to know what a difficult medium the piano trio is to write for, but by 1914 Ravel, like Tchaikovsky before him, was fully aware of the problems of balance it poses (basically, how to let the cello through). But for him a problem was a challenge. In 1912 he had faced that of writing a choreographic symphony in Daphnis et Chloé—and, it seems, fairly much to his own satisfaction, even if not to Diaghilev’s. After engaging with Mallarmé’s poetry the following year, by 1914 he was again ready to grapple with questions of form, which had always fascinated him—the ‘Swiss clockmaker’ side of his make-up, as Stravinsky tartly observed.

He had already been toying with the idea of writing a piano trio for some eight years and is even reported to have said to his friend and pupil Maurice Delage: ‘I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes.’ But in an autobiographical note he dictated in 1928 his only comment on the completed work was that it was ‘Basque in colouring’. This puzzled commentators until, some years after his death, the opening theme of the first movement was discovered among sketches for his unfinished work for piano and orchestra Zaspiak Bat (‘The Seven Provinces’), based on Basque themes. The reason he later gave for this work remaining uncompleted was the ‘irreducibility’ of the Basque material—recalling Constant Lambert’s remark that you can’t do anything with a folk tune except play it again, more loudly. This obstinacy on the part of the material may have helped focus Ravel’s attention even more clearly than usual on formal elements, doing something to explain why these are particularly prominent in the work.

The first movement is in sonata form, but inevitably Ravel introduces his own modifications, as with the second theme which appears unconventionally in the tonic A minor (conventionally so in the reprise, but over altered harmonies). In the development, Ravel builds up tension by means of continually fluctuating tempi (such as had made parts of Daphnis so hard to dance convincingly), while at the reprise the first theme on the piano is reduced to its 3+2+3 rhythm in order to accommodate the simultaneous presentation of the second theme on the strings (it may be worth recording that Ravel spoke admiringly of the reprise in the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, likewise disguised, in that case by the continuation of the soloist’s cadenza). In the matter of instrumental balance, Ravel frequently doubles violin and cello at a distance of two octaves and places the right hand of the piano between them.

‘Pantoum’, the title of the second movement, is taken from a Malay verse form, imitated by Hugo, Gautier and Baudelaire among others, in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third lines of the next. For years it was rather casually assumed that in adopting this title Ravel had merely given in to vague exotic inclinations. One should have known that nothing about Ravel’s composing was ever vague, and in 1975 the British scholar Brian Newbould proved that Ravel does in fact adhere closely to the structure outlined above and, what is more, observes a further requirement of the original form, that the poem (or movement) deal with two separate ideas pursued in parallel—in this case, the brittle opening theme on the piano and the subsequent smoother one on strings two octaves apart. Each of these themes thus has a real continuation (which we hear in performance) and a notional one (which is unheard but satisfies the composer’s amour propre). It is, incidentally, crucial that the second theme be played at the same speed as the first (as on this disc) and not slower, as on one well-known recording from the 1980s.

These exigencies would be enough to keep most composers occupied, but Ravel goes one step further and superimposes these games on a traditional ABA form, whose middle section is in a different metre! It could be that he was trying to outdo Debussy, who had set Baudelaire’s pantoum ‘Harmonie du soir’ in 1889. But at any rate this extraordinarily intricate structure lends some credence to his remark about only needing the themes.

In contrast with the whirling motion of the ‘Pantoum’, the ‘Passacaille’ that follows is obsessively linear—eleven statements of an eight-bar phrase, rising to a climax and then receding again. Even more than the ‘Pantoum’, perhaps, this movement is a tribute to the teaching of André Gédalge, the work’s dedicatee, to whom Ravel was ever grateful for his technical advice. In the last movement, the alternation of 5/4 and 7/4 bars returns us to the metric instability of the first movement, but the structure is even more firmly that of sonata form with a second theme in the shape of massive piano chords. Ravel’s work on this movement coincided with the declaration of war in August, which may possibly explain the trumpet calls in the development. Typically, he wrote off this work, in which his technical mastery is seen in all its dazzling perfection, as ‘just another Trio’.

That disclaimer was, however, to some extent for public consumption. In his heart of hearts, Ravel was passionate about compositional technique and about his role in its progress: to close friends he would occasionally unbutton to the extent of saying: ‘And then, you know, nobody had ever done that before!’ Wherever he got this passion from, it seems unlikely that it was from his teacher Fauré.

This is not to say that Fauré despised technique. But Ravel and other pupils made it clear that this was not what his Conservatoire composition classes were about. If Ravel was grateful to Gedalge on the technical front, his gratitude to Fauré lay on the artistic one. (A fellow-pupil even went to the lengths of saying that Fauré’s best teaching took place on the days when he turned up late, said to Ravel, ‘Play us your Jeux d’eau!’, and then went away again …)

It’s fair to say that, seventy-five years after his death, Fauré remains an enigmatic figure in French music. To the outside world his reputation still is largely as a salon composer, a producer of pretty little songs or, at best, of a Requiem that leaves out or drastically prunes the really tough bits of the text. Those inside the French musical establishment saw him quite differently. When he applied for a composition class at the Conservatoire in 1892, the Director, Ambroise Thomas, had roared: ‘Fauré? Never! If he’s appointed, I resign!’ And when, four years later, with Thomas dead and Massenet having resigned, he did get a composition class, he couldn’t help gloating over what Massenet must have been saying. In short, Fauré was the enemy of all right-thinking musicians, partly because he had not studied at the Conservatoire but at the less prestigious École Niedermeyer, partly because much of the music he wrote was subversive in ways they could not always explain but which they felt in their bones.

Then, in 1905, he was actually made Director of the Conservatoire and his subversive nature came out into the open. Suddenly, gone were the comfortable perks and practices hallowed by tradition and in came a rational programme of reform which instituted, among other things, the rendering of operatic items in the form in which composers had written them, and not ‘as always sung at the Opéra’. Fauré, now nicknamed ‘Robespierre’, made powerful and articulate enemies. How else can we explain the fact that when he died in 1924, the right to a state funeral of this ex-Director of the Conservatoire, Member of the Institut, President of the Société Nationale de Musique, Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur, should have been questioned by the Arts Minister with the words: ‘Fauré? Qui ça?’.

To adapt a modern phrase from another context, Fauré was in the Establishment but never of it. His immunity to fashion can be seen in the titles of his piano pieces. While the neo-Debussystes were penning (as it were) ‘Bells and Birds through a Light Mist on a Spring Day in the Cévennes’, Fauré was content with ‘Nocturne No 8’ or ‘Barcarolle No 13’. Worse still for his future reputation, his music failed to take account of the twentieth century’s efflorescence as the age of publicity. His piano music, for example, makes few bright splashes, but is ferociously difficult to play well. His songs likewise eschew facile narrative in favour of the deeper meaning of the text, which means that singer, pianist and audience all have to understand the nuances of the words (and Vlado Perlemuter remembers, from experience, how Fauré refused to allow singers to ‘take their ease’ in order to make some expressive point more emphatically).

When Fauré retired from the Conservatoire on 1 October 1920 he naturally looked forward to having more time for composition. But he was now seventy-five and beset by deafness and by the deformation of high and low sounds—a condition that suggests a sexual origin, though it has never been thought polite to mention this in French literature about him. It has been suggested that this is a possible reason why his later works tend to occupy the middle range of the sound spectrum, further alienating them from a world that has come to regard Le sacre du printemps as representing a textural norm. Tension in late Fauré comes from within the material. And the listener has to do just that—listen … and not merely hear.

He began his Piano Trio in his favourite resort of Annecy-le-Vieux in August 1922. Initially the top line was to be taken by a clarinet (or violin), but the clarinet option was soon abandoned (though it has been revived in recent years with the clarinet taking the top note wherever there is double-stopping). As Fauré confessed to his wife: ‘The trouble is that I can’t work for long at a time. My worst tribulation is a perpetual fatigue.’ This fatigue is in no way to be heard in the work itself, except insomuch as there are no more notes than necessary, according to the well-known Mozartian formula.

The distance between Fauré’s Trio and Ravel’s, in time a mere eight years or so, can be measured more meaningfully through their amenability or otherwise to verbal explanation. With Ravel there are easily audible and describable structures like pantoums and passacaglias. With Fauré the meaning is almost entirely in the movement between one note and another, between one chord and another. True, the first and last movements embrace sonata and rondo form respectively, while the slow central movement is mostly a meditation on two themes. But form-following is not the best way to enjoy this music. Instead, it is a continual joy and excitement to follow Fauré’s games, which are linguistic rather than formal. In the École Niedermeyer in the 1850s and 1860s he had absorbed a modal way of thinking, the result of which was that a dominant seventh, for example, did not carry the same expectation for him as for a Conservatoire-trained student. In fact it contained expectations, in the plural: from any given harmonic situation, Fauré could, by 1922, take one of at least half-a-dozen exits, any of which might in turn lead to another situation, from which etc. Following Fauré’s thought therefore demands the patience and attentiveness of Theseus following the thread in his search for Ariadne. And at the end of the thought there are often miraculous moments of revelation when everything suddenly comes out into the sunlight, like Pelléas from the grotto beneath the castle, and we find ourselves saying: ‘Ah! Je respire enfin!’

As for Fauré’s ‘perpetual fatigue’, in the finale of the Trio he shakes it off with amazing vigour. By the closing bars, as the French Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux writes, ‘all the thematic and rhythmic elements are now in place and proceed to indulge in a joyful celebration, a perfect balance between that ‘fantasy and reason’ of which Verlaine, and Fauré, speak so persuasively at the end of La bonne chanson.’ To generalise grossly, one might hazard that if in Debussy’s Trio the ‘fantaisie’ is stronger than the ‘raison’ and in Ravel’s the ‘raison’ than the ‘fantaisie’, in Fauré’s Trio the balance of which Nectoux writes is the achievement of an old man who has seen much and suffered much; a balance, moreover, that will subtly shift at every hearing.

Roger Nichols © 1999

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