Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A recital with style and personality

It's great to see a new Chandos series of piano music of Gabriel Fauré, played by Louis Lortie. This first disc in the series, to be released September 30, 2016, is organized as a recital, and a well-planned one it is. It includes a couple of the Nocturnes, three Barcarolles, the 9 Preludes op. 109, the Pelleas and Melisande suite, and two arrangements of beloved songs. Not many other composers could compare with Fauré for the surprising or subtle differences in mood and the different colours, harmonies and rhythms on display in an hour of short piano pieces. 

In preparing the orchestral suite from Pelleas and Melisande Fauré was actually helped by his student Charles Koechlin, but it was the composer himself who prepared this transcription back to piano. These are wonderfully atmospheric works, and it reminds us how much music lovers should thank Maurice Maeterlinck for his play that called forth such amazing music from Sibelius, Debussy, Schoenberg and Fauré. This music fits well with Lortie's strengths: a strong feeling for the underlying structure of the piece, and the ability to communicate sentiment while eschewing cheap effects. The late Preludes are, in the words of Michael Oliver, "among the subtlest and most elusive piano pieces in existence." Lortie's interpretation is much solider and substantial than the lighter, even ethereal version of Paul Crossley on EMI. Too much wispier and I think this music would disappear altogether, but there's definitely more poetry from Crossley. Not that Lortie misses all the good stuff; there's a backbone in these little songs of loss that needs bringing out as well. 

As it happens my reference recording of the Fauré Nocturnes and Barcarolles is by another Canadian, the 2014 2-disc set on ATMA Classique by Stephane Lemelin. Comparing the overlapping five works is an interesting exercise not in deciding which is best, for these are two very fine pianists working at the highest level, but rather in demonstrating how differences in temperament and style can affect how this music makes it from the score to the MP3.

The Fourth Nocturne is such a beautiful work, which takes us to some interesting places before it returns to the serene place where it began. Though Lortie is a bit brisker than the more laid-back Lemelin at the beginning, the journey is just as appealing. The Fifth Barcarolle begins with a slow burn that catches on fire, and burns pretty hot at times, flaring up now and again. I like Lortie's control here; I feel like Lemelin is running a bit hot throughout. The slighter Sixth Barcarolle, though, seems softer and more Romantic as played by Lemelin, whereas it seems little more than a filler in Lortie's recital. The Seventh Barcarolle is a spiky miniature, which Lortie plays as a short and sad story, while Lemelin is more detached. Lortie's is more like Chopin, and Lemelin's more like Satie. The most substantial piece on Lortie's disc is the 6th Nocturne, but this time he's the one who's more reflective and thoughtful, while Lemelin milks the drama a bit.

Lortie plays Percy Grainger's piano version of the song Après un rêve, and his own arrangement of the Pavane that Fauré wrote originally for piano and chorus, and then adapted as an orchestral piece. Fauré himself played what I assume is his own piano version in 1913 in Paris, that was transcribed as a piano roll. The most interesting thing here is how quickly he zips through this:

I think the composer was making a point about how sloppily sentimental the orchestral versions were being played. You'll notice that next time you hear it played in an elevator. Lortie is actually rather wistful here, and much less jaunty. Lortie's middle ground suits the Pavane very well, I think.

Over all this is definitely not a middle-ground kind of recital, however, since Lortie has a definite style and personality. It's rewarding to listen to this music closely, and I very much look forward to doing to the same with volume 2.

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