A guide to the best recordings of Fauré's Nocturnes
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
The often-ignored darkness lying deep within Gabriel Fauré’s music is well illustrated by his Nocturnes. Bryce Morrison assesses the recordings by pianists brave enough to tackle them
Outwardly ordered, serene and self-deprecating in character, Gabriel Fauré’s journey in his most substantial piano offering, the 13 Nocturnes, presents a unique anomaly. For here he moves, as Liszt once put it regarding his own dramatic change of direction, from ‘exuberance of the heart’ to ‘bitterness of the heart’, from radiance to a savage mix of desolation and defiance. Certainly the mystical resolution of pain so notable in the late song-cycles, in Les jardins clos, La chanson d’Eve, Mirages and most of all in L’horizon chimérique, is nowhere to be found. Biographical considerations inevitably intrude. A born romantic, Fauré was drawn to the commedia dell’arte world of masked figures, balls, moonlit balconies, amorous and enticing confidences, passions and trysts; an escape from a less congenial reality. An exceptionally attractive young man (‘in and around him all was seductive’), Fauré’s early idealism was later broken by many cruel turns of fate. Too subtle and complex for early recognition, his music remained, and has remained for many years, closed to all but a small circle of admirers (Fauré’s publisher’s wife was fond of using his unbought scores as jam jar covers).
A tired and increasingly mundane marriage failed to satisfy a deeply sensuous nature, and the trauma of his father’s death and the ever-encroaching deafness of his later life all contributed to making Fauré’s final years ‘a terrible cloak of misery’ (‘I am shattered by this illness; it is disrespectful or, at the very least, hardly thoughtful to speak of Beethoven’). All this and so much more beyond verbal expression is contained in the Nocturnes.
And what has been the critical response to Fauré over the years? Edward Sackville-West may have spoken of Fauré’s musical roots or foundation, of a restraint and beauty learnt from Mozart, of long melodic lines, eloquent phraseology and a tonal freedom learnt from Chopin, and of those sudden felicities and codas in which whole movements are magically illuminated from Schumann. Yet the poetic conundrum posed by much of his music has often prompted little beyond a mix of indifference and incomprehension.
For Debussy, Fauré was a ‘master of charms’, his Ballade as erotic as a woman’s loose shoulder strap, while even Liszt – most far-sighted of critics – demurred before music which offered too few instant returns. At a later date Cortot may have written rapturously about Fauré (the First Impromptu’s ‘stylised coquetry and regret’ or the Third Impromptu’s central calm, ‘like an avenue of fans folding and unfolding’) but much to the composer’s chagrin he played little of his music. In a burst more of sadness than of rage, Fauré wrote to him saying, ‘you allow my music to pile up without actually playing it’. This desertion even included music dedicated to Cortot, including the bleak and unaccommodating Ninth Nocturne. Horowitz once told me that he played the entire piano works of Fauré in private but his public offering consisted of only three works, proof for some that he was primarily interested in the externals of music. For French pianist Michel Béroff, Fauré’s music expresses little beyond a ‘vague perfume’, an opinion that should have earned him chastisement from his long-term two-piano partner Jean-Philippe Collard, who has recorded the complete piano works. Joan Chissell, for long a critic for Gramophone, felt that with Fauré, ‘a little goes a long way’, while a German lady ‘professor’ who I had the misfortune to meet as a jury colleague in France told me that if she suggested such music to her students they would walk out. For such people Fauré’s outward convention and inner audacity, together with the move from what they see as salonish origins to obscurity, is hardly worth the effort or challenge.
And that challenge, too, is considerable, The difficulty in performance is a major factor in Fauré’s neglect. Any pianist who has ever studied or attempted to memorise Fauré will tell you of their often desperate fight for fluency in patterns which rarely lie easily under the hand, and for shot-silk modulations and rhythmic ambiguities that can fox even the most skilled player. And all this in music which, as Liszt hinted, is hardly designed to win easy applause. The public has understandably little notion of the intensive work required to bring such an elusive task to vivid and meaningful life. Regrettably, if again understandably, many pianists dip their toes in Fauré (the early, more accessible Fauré with the Second and Third Impromptus for preference) before retreating into less unsettling, commercially more viable territory for a greater sense of musical terra firma.
Again, and at a more basic level, such a plethora of problems is compounded by record companies whose sleeves and illustrations perpetuate a misleading emphasis and impression. Sylvan woods, garlands of flowers and over-familiar portraits of Fauré as an elderly white-haired prelate hardly hint at the whole story. And it is greatly to Paul Crossley’s credit, for example, that he insisted on having reproductions of the often darkly disturbing paintings of Caspar David Friedrich for his covers. These at any rate suggest paradise lost and hardly regained.
A subtle and wide-ranging challenge
The nine pianists under consideration can surely be seen as a charmed circle brave enough to attempt a challenge as subtle as it is wide-ranging (no one should be deterred by Fauré’s plaintive cry, ‘it seems that I repeat myself constantly, and that I cannot find a noticeably different approach from that already expressed’). And of these one stands out as supreme, two as finely satisfying, one as romantically fervent and enjoyable if sometimes suggesting an over-hurried preparation, while five others seem to me altogether less distinguished. Clearly personal preference plays its part and yet I find it hard to sympathise with Jean-Paul Sevilla’s rough-and-ready approach to such great music. If finesse is the common denominator of all the finest French music (of Debussy and Ravel as well as Fauré), then Sevilla’s disc is a sad reminder of how a generalised bluffness is a poor substitute for inwardness and reflection. Very much among those who have failed to note that long stretches of French piano music are marked piano and pianissimo, his launch of the First Nocturne’s chaste loveliness is painfully loud and obvious. No 4, which Cortot found ‘too satisfied with its own languor’, is given a hale and hearty treatment, almost as if Sevilla is determined to bring Fauré’s dream-world up short and confront him with a different and alien reality. Sadly the later Nocturnes, which might have benefited more from such an approach, fare no better. Time and again poetry turns into prose, something confirmed in Sevilla’s own liner-notes which show a similar lack of sophistication.
David Lively, a prize-winning American but Paris-based pianist, offers an opposite extreme. And while he pays tribute in his warmly appreciative notes to ‘a consummate pianistic art’ and to ‘13 poems of love, communion, solitude and death’, his performances are too wayward and ill-focused to withstand close scrutiny. Fauré, who could be a tart critic where the performance of his music was concerned, would surely have frowned in disapproval at such looseness, and it is easy to imagine his outer poise and urbanity evaporating like so much vapour when faced with Lively’s lack of discipline.The ecole severe is one thing (play the notes and the rest will look after itself) but Lively’s baggy and pulse-threatening rubato is hardly preferable. The Second Nocturne sounds casual rather than expressive and there is an unforgivable trivialisation of the Fourth Nocturne’s main theme on its final and delicately ornamented return. Jean Hubeau (1917-92) was 75 at the time of his recordings of the Nocturnes, clearly made when he was well past his prime. Time and again straightforwardness degenerates into lethargy and as nocturne follows nocturne you are given little sense of Fauré’s stature. A marginally higher degree of engagement in the later nocturnes does little to convey a sense of wonder or revelation, let alone magic.
David Jalbert, a young French pianist, tells us most interestingly of Fauré’s dislike of rubato and of all things that send a shiver down the spine, and of the way so many of his interpreters recreate little beyond ‘cold but elegant sound sculptures’. For him the answer is a reconciliation and balance between a certain formality and lyrical warmth. Certainly his way with the First Nocturne’s opening sense of plangent elegy is admirably caught and so, too, is the mounting tension and agitation of the Second Nocturne’s central whirl of events. In No 3, however, he lacks a necessary degree of transparency and his touch of inertia (of a teasing syncopation and flow of ideas too heavily weighted) is emphasised by his record company’s soft-focus sound. Here, the sort of fashionable ennui so characteristic of Fauré’s early song ‘Tristesse’, with its world-weary refrain ‘Hélas! j’ai dans le coeur une tristesse affreuse’, invades music requiring greater vitality. There is greater success as Fauré moves in his Seventh Nocturne towards the dark-hued romanticism of his final years with a surprising degree of strength in the final and overwhelming triptych (Nos 11‑13). Yet even here and in comparison with Fauré’s finest interpreters, the playing lacks that final incandescence, that sense so memorably expressed by Dylan Thomas when he wrote of a refusal to ‘go gentle into that good night’.
Charles Owen’s set of the Nocturnes is a reminder that Fauré is far from being an exclusively French preoccupation (three of the nine pianists under discussion are English). But while there is much to admire in such fleet and intelligent playing, there is also a sense of a task undertaken prematurely, made before Owen was able to make such music entirely his own. His novel and incisive staccato in the Second Nocturne’s central section erases too much of the music’s expressive weight and his scrupulous if sometimes over-literal way with rests lets too much light into Fauré’s early and crepuscular magic. A bald rather than subtle start to the Seventh Nocturne, that tipping-point in the series, an overly discreet, even laissez-faire touch in the Ninth Nocturne and a failure to observe the hairpin change from forte to piano at the start of the Twelfth Nocturne again suggest a pianist who keeps Fauré’s fiercer passions at a safe and manageable distance.
Stott’s stunning survey
With Kathryn Stott you enter another world of ardour and conviction. No need here for Fauré’s frequent complaint that too many pianists played him ‘with the shutters down’. On the contrary, few pianists have summoned the courage to step out and relish to the full the range and drama of the Nocturnes. Stott plays her heart out in No 6 and her magically hushed return to the principal theme in No 5 after the central agitation is one of many delectable moments. She evokes all of the nightmarish sense of someone fighting to reach an inaccessible destination in No 10 (those tortuous, seemingly never-to-be-resolved sequences) and memorably captures the way the idealised birdsong at the centre of No 6 is distorted in No 12 into a tortured cry, a dark night of the soul indeed. How well I remember a conversation with Stott as she told me of her growing awareness of a powerful and visceral force never far below the surface in so many of Fauré’s works, something she relishes to the full when she allows the undertow of No 13 to erupt in a brilliant fury. True, there are moments when Stott’s rubato can be flushed and hectic (parts of Nos 1 and 6) but her occasional inaccuracy surely comes from an overspill of emotion rather than from misreadings.
Returning to France and to Jean-Philippe Collard, a richly experienced Fauréan. Here is a special and very French combination of sense and sensibility, and in the early Nocturnes, of that ‘chaste voluptuousness’ of which Norman Suckling speaks so eloquently in his book on Fauré (JM Dent: 1946). With his cool, jade-like sonority and crystalline clarity, no matter how elaborate the figuration, Collard also rises to the final challenge, achieving in the final Nocturnes a powerful sense of something disjunct, and in No 9 an awareness of uneasy and alienated rather than reconciled voices.
Few pianists deserve their honorary French beret more than Paul Crossley, who has recorded the complete piano works of Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc and Ravel as well as sizeable amounts of Messiaen. And, like Collard, he too senses Fauré’s Classical as well as Romantic antecedents. Everything is scrupulously worked and considered, lightly rather than heavily fragranced, as it were, and with a lucidity that creates its own distinctive ambience. In No 2 he makes you shy away from anything so obvious as rubato and think instead of a subtle musical breathing. His superior pianism and refinement erase any possible notion of a scented hot-house atmosphere in Nos 3 and 4 and his performance of the baleful Twelfth Nocturne is alone worth the price of his boxed Fauré. Here there is an unflinching sense of an engulfing darkness and an abyss that threatened to destroy Fauré’s much-cherished equilibrium and decorum.
The fruits of a lifelong commitment
Finally, the pièce de résistance and one of the most remarkable of all piano records. As Schnabel is to Beethoven, Rubinstein to Chopin and Gieseking to Debussy, so Germaine Thyssens-Valentin is to Fauré. Her first complete set of the Nocturnes, superbly transferred, dates from 1956 (a later, marginally less distinguished version was to follow), and the CD is the product I have to admit of a long and strenuous campaign on my own part to get this unique pianist’s virtually complete Fauré reissued. Hearing her once more in the Nocturnes is to be reminded that no more inward or luminous interpreter of Fauré exists. Hear her exquisite voicing and balance of parts in the First Nocturne, or the way her silken dexterity spins such an extraordinary skein of sound in the central storms of Nos 2 and 5. Her dream pianissimo is the pianistic equivalent of Gérard Souzay’s singing on his early record made with Jacqueline Bonneau of ‘Diane Séléné’ from L’horizon chimérique. There is nothing here of the ‘social’ pianist offering decorous approximations of great music but rather a reflection of a spiritual quest and lifelong commitment. Significantly, Thyssens-Valentin until recently remained unknown to the commercial music world, her unique calibre provoking jealousy from contemporaries wedded to a more safe and inadequate view of Fauré’s genius.
I can only say in conclusion how intensely grateful I am to at least four of the nine recordings available of the Fauré Nocturnes, all of them a courageous act of musical faith in entirely individual ways and styles. There have, of course, been other black-disc sets of Fauré (one by Robert Casadesus’s protégé, that fine American pianist Grant Johannesen) but the majority have long since become unavailable. Recording Fauré’s music remains a dubious commercial enterprise and listeners should quickly snap up the finest available discs before they too sink into oblivion. I should, stretching my brief somewhat, mention Wilhelm Kempff’s unforgettable recording of the Sixth Nocturne, a solitary French offering from that incomparable German pianist, also Eileen Joyce’s 1942 disc of the Second Impromptu where her legendary charm and facility found such an enthralling outlet.
Finally, once more, I am sorry that Fauré never lived to hear Thyssens-Valentin’s recordings. Even he, a stickler like all true Frenchmen for what is orderly and correct, would surely have capitulated before a pianist whose fantasy and freedom find their way into his very heart. Here in her haunting and unforgettable recordings is a mirror of Fauré’s parting words: ‘J’ai recule les limits du raffinement’ and ‘I have done what I could…and so, judge, my God’.
The top choice
Timeless and inimitable, these performances have been expertly transferred, capturing all the quality of Thyssens-Valentin’s magic, her inwardness and subtlety whether in Fauré’s early rapture, his amour troublé, or in the darkness and austerity of his final years.
A French alternative
Jean-Philippe Collard plays very much in a French tradition once described as “lucid, precise and slender, concentrating on grace rather than force”. But there is no absence of power and intensity in Collard’s performances of the late Nocturnes.
The budget choice
A specialist in the French and modern repertoire, Crossley brings a rare clarity and lucidity to Faure’s complex journey, with an acute response to what he has called the “struggle and conflict” of the late Nocturnes, music that is anguished and bitter but unresigned.
A British view
Vivid and impulsive, Kathryn Stott heeds Fauré’s warning that too many pianists play his music with undue restraint and sobriety. There are hectic moments and some questionable readings, but there is no doubting the conviction of a pianist who recently had the courage to run a Fauré Festival.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe