Jean Doyen plays Chopin, Liszt and Music from France
My sadly seldom-visited LP collection includes Jean Doyen’s Gaspard and Valses nobles, which have always held a special place in my affections. I think I must have bought it following a friend’s tip-off; or was it a Gramophone review? I hadn’t dreamed that he had been the first ever to record Gaspard – in 1937, and reissued here for the first time on CD (no sign of a date anywhere on my LP, but it is clearly not the same performance). I’m sure plenty of listeners will be startled at how technically clean and polished his account of this notoriously finger-breaking piece is. Unsurprisingly the sound is monochrome by modern standards, but that may be as much to do with the instrument used; and once you’re attuned to Doyen’s unflamboyant but super-agile manner, you may find this more satisfying than many a more exhibitionist modern account.
Doyen’s playing embodies the very best in the French pianistic tradition. It is fastidious in taste, cleanly articulated (at times amazingly so), unflashy, favouring subtlety and pose, allergic to barnstorming, and all delivered with a discreet minimum of sustaining pedal: playing to be shared with connoisseurs in a modest-size hall, perhaps, rather than for bringing a large house down. The lyrical pages of all four Chopin Ballades show how winning his modest sensibility can be, though his little compromises in the codas of the Second and Fourth may disappoint those expecting him to take every virtuoso demand in his stride. Thanks to the Chopin Variations placed first on the first disc, the ear is already acclimatised by this stage to the sound, which retains a good deal of 78rpm swish and has presumably not been put through any obtrusive noise-reduction system.
Like so many of the French school he typifies, Doyen was evidently something of a specialist in burbling textures: witness Saint-Saëns’s Valse-caprice piano quintet, the Fauré Barcarolles and – super-delectably – both Liszt Concert Studies. He is wonderful, too, in the two Chabrier pieces. I shall also be returning regularly to the two Chopin waltzes, especially to the G flat major, which is the quintessence of Gallic elegance. But then so too is the exquisite flexibility he brings to the Debussy Images.
Three authoritative essays grace APR’s booklet yet still leave me hungry for more information. Did Doyen have any direct contact with Ravel (he apparently did meet Chevillard, transcriber of Chabrier’s España)? Did he really record only one of the second book of Images, or are the others lost or substandard? Apart from the Ravel (on an Érard) and Liszt (a Gaveau), does anyone know which pianos he used for the other pieces? Are there recordings of the numerous other French works he premiered? But, above all, how many more jewels can APR possibly unearth for its already starry French Piano School crown?