MASSENET Complete Piano Works
Think of Massenet and you think of Werther, Manon and the ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs – and not necessarily of piano music. But in addition to the operas, ballets, oratorios, symphonic works, incidental music for 14 plays and no fewer than 200 songs, his complete solo piano works comprise 12 titles composed between 1867 and 1907 (they break down into 29 separate short works) and fit conveniently on to one CD.
Another composer might have called them Characterstücke or Lyric Pieces, which they closely resemble in scale and content. Perhaps they might have become better known had they been marketed as such. They certainly deserve to be, with the exception, perhaps, of the seven Improvisations (1875).
Maurizio Zaccaria opens with Valse folle (1898), perhaps the least characteristic – and certainly least expected – piece from the pen of the always elegant and melodic Massenet. Inspired, surely, by one of Alkan’s madcap capers, it is dedicated to Raoul Pugno, who recorded it in November 1903 (among the earliest discs made by any major pianist). Zaccaria plays it very well – especially the hilariously brutal ending – but not as well as the super-refined Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion, 12/01) or the late Aldo Ciccolini, one of Zaccaria’s mentors, on his benchmark two-disc set of Massenet’s piano works (including the concerto and piano duets) recorded for EMI in 1977 and 1979.
But if Zaccaria does not rise to the same level, he makes a convincing and affectionate case for these miniatures, buried among them (in the delightful Dix Pièces de genre, Op 10) the famous ‘Elégie’ (No 5). With several charming salon pieces (try the Valse très lente), a scintillating Toccata and transcriptions of the Aragonese from Le Cid and the ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, Zaccaria’s intégrale is well worth your attention despite the enclosed acoustic and occasional thud of the pedal action.