Fauré Barcarolles; Theme and Variations

An astonishing display of all too rare artistry by a rediscovered great pianist

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Fauré Barcarolles; Theme and Variations

  • (13) Barcarolles
  • Thème et Variations
  • (4) Valses-caprices
  • (5) Impromptus
  • Impromptu
  • (8) Pièces brèves

No‚ I hadn’t heard of her before‚ either‚ but on opening my copy of Fauré’s Nocturnes I noticed that ‘G Thyssens-Valentin’ was credited with fingering the first eight of them. Before reading Bryce Morrison’s laudatory booklet-notes I suppose I imagined that she must have been some respected Conservatoire professor‚ a Fauré specialist‚ and that her playing would be immaculately correct‚ incorporating all that a student pianist should know about this music except the genius to bring it to life.
How wrong one can be! I now have not the slightest doubt that Germaine Thyssens-Valentin (1902-87) was a great and inspired pianist; I’ve heard Fauré playing that approaches‚ or even occasionally equals hers‚ but none that surpasses it. I could fill the rest of my space with a catalogue of her qualities‚ but her intimacy of expression demands first place. Fauré’s music has a confiding quality to it‚ as though it were a message intended for an audience of one‚ and Thyssens-Valentin is in perfect accord with this. Those messages‚ however‚ especially in the later Nocturnes and Barcarolles‚ are often of great profundity‚ and she has both the heart and the technique to convey them. I have not often been so struck by Fauré’s extraordinary courage in distilling emotions far too deep for words from the silent isolation of his old age.
Why is Thyssens-Valentin not better known? I suppose that being a superlative interpreter of Fauré was not a reliable passport to international fame in the middle years of the 20th century. She also retired from the concert platform for a lengthy period (1924-51)‚ in order to bring up a family of five children. And she seems to have recorded mainly for the Ducretet-Thomson company‚ whose decline coincided with the arrival of stereo. The recordings here‚ by the way‚ are admirably clean and the remastering is beyond praise.
So some sort of a catalogue there must be. Her sound‚ first of all‚ is wonderfully beautiful‚ a combination of the subtlest colour and great delicacy of touch (a note by her daughter tells us that from the age of four or five she was studying the harpsichord as well as the piano) ensuring that contrapuntal voices are in perfect balance. She is a mistress of the most refined rubato‚ extreme finesse of articulation and smooth‚ singing line. Although she excels in quiet delicacy‚ her strength when required is formidable but even in the strongest fortissimo she never makes an ugly sound. She is‚ blessedly‚ aware that Fauré had a sense of humour‚ and not only in the frank exuberance of the Valses caprices. Nor is she one of those artists that it takes a while to get used to. On each of these discs the first track is immediately characteristic of her. The first Nocturne has immaculate voice-leading and the most light-fingered leggierissimo playing imaginable; the first Barcarolle is wonderfully tender‚ its second idea poised and liquid; the first Valse caprice has rich fantasy‚ dazzling brilliance and adorable wit.
I had intended to listen to these discs over a period of several days‚ making instructive comparisons with other fine Fauré interpreters. I wolfed them down at a sitting; the exploration of Fauré’s emotional and technical range through the Barcarolles and especially the Nocturnes had never seemed so absorbing‚ the companion on that voyage never so prodigal with insight. A great pianist‚ I repeat‚ and if anyone should object that no pianist could be termed great on the evidence of their perceptions of a single composer I would reply that no one would say that if the composer were Beethoven. Good heavens! Am I setting Fauré alongside Beethoven? I am‚ and I could call upon no more eloquent witness to prove my case than Germaine Thyssens-Valentin. Her other recordings (there is at least one Mozart concerto) urgently demand reissue.

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