photo of Francis Planté by Nadar.
Francis Planté: tracks 1-18; Camille Saint-Saëns: track 19; Louis Dièmer: tracks 20-21; Isidore Philipp and Marcelle Herrenschmidt: track 22; Lazare-Levy: tracks 23-25; Ricardo Viñes: tracks 26=27
awarded the Diapason d’Or.
Sonic archaeology of the earliest French-Alsatian pianists whose art was guided by early 19th century masters. Their unique and distinct approaches created traditions in France that exist into the present. Nearly all heard here knew one another and played together. An extensive text covers their lives, spanning contacts from Bizet and Rossini to Milhaud.
- Chopin Etude op. 10, no. 4
- Chopin Etude op. 10, no. 5
- Chopin Etude op. 10, no. 7
- Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 1
- Chopin Etude op. 25. no. 2
- Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 9
- Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 11
- Gluck-Planté Gavotte
- Berlioz-Redon Serenade
- Boccherini-Planté Minuetto
- Mendelssohn Scherzo in E minor
- Mendelssohn Song Without Words op. 19, no. 3
- Mendelssohn Song Without Words op.67, no. 6
- Mendelssohn Song Without Words op. 62, no. 6
- Mendelssohn Song Without Words op. 67, no. 4
- Schumann Romance op. 28, no 2
- Schumann Romance op. 32, no. 2
- Schumann-Debussy Am Springbrunnen
- Saint-Saëns Africa: Improvised cadenza
- Chopin Nocturne op. 27, no. 2
- Mendelssohn Song Without Words op. 67, no. 4
- Saint-Saëns Scherzo for Two Pianos
- Chabrier Idylle
- Chabrier Sous bois
- Debussy Masques
- Debussy Images I: Hommage à Rameau excerpt
- Debussy Etude X excerpt
- bonus download track: F. Couperin Les Roseaux (Lazare-Levi)
- bonus download track: Debussy Le cathedral engloutie (Lazare-Levi)
Jean Cocteau said that the photograph destroys Death. He could have also said that the phonograph obliterates the limits of time. The captured sounds of the earliest significant pianists of France, the first born in 1835, now bring them permanently into the present, their artistry once more alive. These elite musicians exemplify France’s musical aesthetic technical and conceptual precision, a refined sense of proportion, and an exquisite sense of taste.
The legacies of the fathers and mothers of the French piano tradition are well known; it is the mission of this CD to illuminate the legacies of the tradition’s grandfathers.
Francis Planté (1839-1934)
“He was tireless,” recalled Marcel Dupré, composer and organist, of Francis Planté. Even at age eighty-nine, Planté regaled Dupré and his family with reminiscences, telling their young daughter how at age seven he had played for a pupil of Haydn. The vigorous ninety-five years of Planté’s life span a musical arc reaching from Chopin’s pupils and colleagues to Prokofiev, Milhaud, and Stravinsky. Even his final moments did not lack enthusiasm and spirit. A relative described him as dying “for his passion” – or rather, the second of his passions:
“One morning at breakfast he saw a woodcock (becasse) pass by, which is a very difficult bird to hunt as it is so fast and only found at certain times of the year, and moreover, it is succulent to eat. He went out in his nightshirt to see where the woodcock had gone, to hunt for it later. He caught a cold and died from pneumonia soon after.”
Planté’s musicianship was appreciated from his debut at seven up to the series of charity concerts he gave at ninety. He began his lessons in Paris at age four with Mme. de Saint-Aubert, a Liszt pupil. As he progressed, he was given to Marmontel; a fellow pupil of Marmontel’s and, later, a colleague, was Bizet, whom Planté came to know well. In July 1850 he received a First Prize at the Paris Conservatory for playing the finale from Thalberg’s Sonata, Op. 56.
Although Planté knew several Chopin pupils, a far more important link came through two musicians associated with Chopin – the violinist Alard and the cellist Franchomme; after Chopin’s death, Alkan was briefly deputized as their accompanist before being replaced, in January 1854, by Planté, then fourteen. The trio played publicly in 1855, 1856, 1858, 1860, 1872, and 1873, a period during which Planté matured considerably.
Rossini’s wife soon heard Planté and invited him to her home, where she introduced him to her illustrious husband. Planté so impressed Rossini that he invited him to perform in his salon, which was frequented by the leading figures of the day, including Alexandre Dumas. Rossini also expressed enthusiasm for an Ave Maria composed by Planté, and wrote to him in 1866:
“I am calling you on your kind promise to spend a day with me in Passy. I love and appreciate your fine talent even more with the heart than with the judgement of a master. You possess that which cannot be acquired: elegance of sentiment and the execution of a consummate artist. Not everyone should sing (play) [on] this instrument, with which a performer is more likely to want to impress (stun) listeners than to transport them musically, which is the sole task of a performer.”
That same year Rossini organized a soirée at which Liszt and Planté performed Liszt’s Les Preludes and Tasso on two pianos – performances which, for Liszt, “succeeded beyond my expectation.” The following year, Liszt wrote to Planté from Rome, thanking him for toiling over his compositions. Planté was very drawn to the two Legends, performing them frequently, even in his last recitals. When Liszt learned that Planté and Saint-Saëns had played his Tasso and l’Héroide funèbre on two pianos, he again sent a note of appreciation. Through Rossini and Liszt, Planté also met the young Wagner.
A late encounter between Planté and Liszt took place at another Paris soirée, and was described by Planté in a letter to Édouard Ganche (23 December 1929):
“Just as I was to be seated at the piano with Liszt at my side – he asked me to turn the pages – I saw him place a manuscript several pages long on the music-stand. . . He announced to the listeners how it came to be written by him for his young friend, the cellist Brandoukov. The handwriting wasn’t very legible, far from it; this he understood and he hesitated a moment. . . ‘Most certainly’, he said rather loudly, ‘it has too many flats, I don’t see well, and you (addressing me) here, with your young eyes, go and read the manuscript.’ I didn’t dare refuse his request and didn’t do so badly in pulling off the accompaniment. Liszt turned to Gounod, who was at his right, and jotted down: ‘and you see, he didn’t miss a single flat on the music-stand,’ recalling Mozart to his Sovereign à propos the Don Giovanni Overture.”
J.-P. Nectoux (Fauré, les voix du clair-obscur. Paris, 1990) surmises that Liszt intentionally and good-naturedly lured Planté by leading him to believe that he would play Chopin’s Cello Sonata. (The soirée took place on 28 March 1886, four months before Liszt’s death.)
Planté visited London in 1878, where he took part in a recital at the French Embassy, playing solos and movements of chamber music with an ensemble including the Hungarian violinist Reményi – this was a common format for concerts in those years – and was a guest of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s second concerto. (Planté was a lifelong champion of Mendelssohn’s concertos.) That year he also went to Brussels, where he gained favor with the country’s music-loving monarchs and met Franck and Albeniz, the latter of whom became a great friend. In 1883, Anton Rubinstein invited him to perform several concertos under his baton in St. Petersburg. During this period he also gave concerts in Dresden and possibly other German cities.
Because Planté was the foremost pianist of France after Chopin, he knew all of France’s composers, from Berlioz to d’Indy. Indeed, in Bordeaux in 1893, Planté performed d’Indy’s Sur un chant montagnard français (Cévenole) under the composer’s baton, along with the Beethoven Choral Fantasy and Franck’s Variations Symphoniques. D’Indy’s diaries record the first time he heard the pianist, then thirty-three (12 May 1872):
“As for Planté, all were aware that he plays admirably, that it is impossible to find a finer touch, more delicate, more penetrating and accurate, yet I do not see him as a great artist. It’s all well with his virtuosity and delicatesse romantique, he plays Mendelssohn’s [Songs without Words] and Chopin to perfection, but as for Beethoven, it’s no use, it just doesn’t go! He played the final movement of the Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, all with common sense, with the ritenendo à la Chopin, without the least passion, all like a buttoned-up frock coat from start to finish, except for the hammered passage at the end, but it certainly isn’t the way Beethoven ought to be played, at least not how I understand my grand, my immense Beethoven!”
Another meeting took place in August of 1896, when d’Indy stayed near the Spanish border with the Duparcs and Planté in a musical household:
“Planté was melting: he sincerely and passionately loves music and we played on two or three pianos before dinner and afterwards until one in the morning. He will come to meet me in Bilbao and is enthusiastic for my Symphony which he would like to play everywhere, which is not to be dismissed because he plays jolly well. He could not have been kinder.”
Two days later (28 August), d’Indy joins Planté in Bilbao:
“As soon as we arrived at the hotel we fell into the arms of Guilmant [organist], Pedrell [Falla’s teacher], Gailhard, and above all, Planté, whose southern exuberance he hasn’t the means to restrain while he is there, but, as he is very wrapped up in our music, I believe him to be an excellent recruit.”
Two days after that, Planté arranged (at his expense) for three pianos and an organ to be delivered to the Bilbao hotel, where he led the musicians in ensemble playing until two in the morning, exhausting even the younger d’Indy. The indefatigable Planté even asked d’Indy to accompany him and Guilmant on an expedition to inspect a new organ at Loyola and stop in Hendaye, across the border. A farewell banquet for the musicians that lasted until three in the morning was held on 1 September 1896, at which D’Indy gave a speech and Planté, a recital. Their paths crossed a few weeks later in Les Faugs, where d’Indy, Guilmant and Paul Vidal were guests: Planté insisted that they perform Bach [concertos] each day on two and three pianos.
The following year Planté and d’Indy collaborated publicly for the last time. The organist and composer Antoine de la Tombelle joined them in a performance of Bach’s Concerto for Three Pianos, given in Bordeaux in April, 1897. D’Indy:
“Planté was extraordinarily nervous. I don’t know if it was the tempo but I never believed we would ever start the famous concerto. As soon as he was seated at his piano he got up to affectionately shake hands with me, then, seated again, he rose to go over and say a few words to Tombelle, then we finally began before a delighted and absolutely packed hall, proceeding quite well despite the earlier rehearsal, on to the end, where the enthusiasm was such that we had to repeat two of the three movements.”
When Planté later gave a Beethoven sonata, d’Indy left to chat with a lady he recognized, depriving posterity of a progress report on his interpretation.
In semi-retirement, Planté appeared in provincial cities. Alfredo Casella writes:
“In the summer of 1902, I was engaged as solo pianist for the whole season at the Casino in Dieppe. The orchestra was conducted by Pierre Monteux, who was already demonstrating his magnificent qualities as musician and director.
“In that season old Francis Planté came to appear as soloist. He was a pianist of a very aristocratic and worldly type which has completely disappeared today. He was, however, an extremely able performer. Gifted with a limpid technique, he played a heterogeneous repertoire with Olympian serenity. He immediately took a strong liking to me, wanted to hear me play, and from then on wanted me around for the entire duration of his stay. He was a frightfully crazy old man. He came with an enormous valise full of all kinds of things, including a collection of twelve toothbrushes, and I had the high honor of carrying this valise for him. He played a Mozart concerto and one of Saint-Saëns’ with the orchestra, and played them as a very great master, with an unforgettable perfection of style. Several days later he wanted me to play with him the Saint-Saëns Scherzo [on this CD with Philipp and Herrenschmidt] and Caprice Héroique for two pianos, and the rehearsals of this performance were genial and entertaining. Because of his continual jests, his assurance, and his mania for talking in public, he somewhat resembled Vladimir de Pachmann, and like him, excelled in the miniature.” When Pachmann and his wife played together in America in 1890, this Scherzo was one of the works on their programs.
Planté was also heard in Paris on 20 and 27 April 1902 with Hennebain (flute) and Nadaud (violin) in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.
When the composer Gustave Samazeuilh visited his family in the Gironde, he would stop over to see Planté at his home in St. Avit. From their earliest encounters, Planté showed great interest in the young man’s compositions, becoming the first to perform a Suite (in 1902) and, later, his Violin Sonata, Fantasie Elégiaque, and the Chant de la Mer. Planté meticulously wrote fingerings into these and all his scores. Samazeuilh wrote of Planté at home:
“Long hours at his Erard grand piano, unraveling new works by Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Vincent d’Indy, Paul Dukas, Debussy, Ravel, Roger-Ducasse, Schmidt, Roussel, Albeniz, Falla, Richard Strauss, Balakirev, Prokofiev, etc. Planté asserted himself as an amazing sight-reader, enthusiastic, avid to share his impressions with casual listeners. . . to delight in, for example, the sumptuousness of Dukas’ La Peri, or the Daphnis et Chloe of Ravel!
“Following an afternoon spent in this way, it was not unusual for me to accompany him at the second piano in concertos by Chopin, Schumann, Franck, Fauré, d’Indy. Furthermore, there were sessions of chamber music with Noëla Cousin, Lucien Capet, André Hekking, Marcel Darrieux, and the most advanced sonatas, such as those of Darius Milhaud, didn’t terrify him at all! His curiosity was unceasingly renewed, an incessant effort to penetrate the composers’ intentions, to serve them in piety, to guide the taste of his listeners. One of them asked him insistently to play a virtuosic piece – I don’t know which – and he answered: ‘Here, my dear friend, one does not play piano. One makes music!’
“The following years I always found Francis Planté equal to himself – the youngest, most vibrant of French pianists, and, at the same time, the most sensitive and understanding friend. His marvellous vitality overcame illnesses, allowing him to face ordeals.” At ninety-two, he could still play Samazeuilh’s Suite and the Fauré Ballade “with an irresistible verve.”
Planté started organizing concerts to benefit the victims and survivors of the First World War. He played chamber music on 11 and 12 July 1916, with Hekking and Cousin. Together they offered Chopin’s Trio, Op. 8, a violin sonata by Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata. In 1917, another benefit took place in the crypt of Saint-Honoré d’Eylau. Debussy attended:
“Not wanting to start every letter [to publisher Jacques Durand] with everlasting variations on ‘I’m no better’ and ‘I’m very tired’, may I be allowed to tell you about Francis Planté? He’s been at Saint Jean-de-Luz these last few days and gave two concerts at the Ch[arles] B[ordes] Society. He’s prodigious. He played – very well – the Toccata [Pour le Piano] and was marvellous too in Liszt’s Feux follets. Much less good in Ravel’s Jeux d’eau. This piece’s butterfly wings can’t support a virtuoso’s weight (or his pedaling, whichever you will.) At the second concert he’s going to play ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ and ‘Mouvement’ and he’s asked my advice.”
Planté allowed his legacy to be preserved, in part, on recordings, made at his mountain-top villa. A silent film scans his expansive property above the town where he also served as mayor, and offers glimpses of the eighty-nine year old pianist recording Chopin’s Etude Op. 10/7. He is seen, possibly a day later, in the adjacent room where the equipment has been installed, wearing a smock, at work with the engineers in selecting discs for publication: several were rejected and one hopes they might survive as test pressings in family archives or elsewhere. (Planté’s descendants claim his music library was sold off and denied access to his archive.) His recordings brim with energy, offering a clear and unified conception of each work, at times suggesting his legendary “floating tone” while simultaneously projecting an angular sound that seems to have influenced the younger Alfred Cortot, whose touch and accents impress as being derived, at least in part, from Planté’s playing.
An unprecedented transporting of heavy and sensitive recording equipment from Paris to Planté’s remote home in the Pyrenees drew attention from French music journals and newspapers. The critic Emile Vuillermoz wrote an article on the pianist ‘s plans to record at his house and received the following note (14 April 1928) in reply:
“How can I say, how can I express how deeply I was touched, I should even say moved while reading the current, August 11th issue of L’Illustration. Really, you overwhelm me! … It is not a review, or even a biography, but a veritable apotheosis, while my only ambition is simply that people should say of me: “He was a man of good will and hard work”…
“Your extravagant kindness has not left me without some embarrassment, and I have only one recourse, to hide behind my piano to preserve my modesty which, because of you, is seriously in danger!! In this regard, I recall at this moment a naive and charming statement made by one of my countrymen, a young Seminarian, responding to his Bishop who asked him, as well as his comrades, what was his best quality. ‘Humility, Monseigneur’, he quickly responded, ‘and that is why I fear no one!’
“Be that as it may, I choose to see in your great forbearance fresh encouragement to prepare my best for what I call my ‘Swan Song’!.. I am going to give, in my little ville natale of Orthez, Basses Pyrénées (I am Béarnais by birth) next Saturday, the 22nd of September, a Festival pianistique in the form of two recitals (in the afternoon and evening) with two entirely different programs…
“To those who might wish to express their regrets at this end to my very long career, I would respond: rest assured that I have known some old swans who still sing…
“During my brief visit to Orthez, my grandfather’s house (which has remained in my family) will be my residence, and I will stay in the room occupied successively by Marshal Soult and Wellington, after the retreat from Toulouse. (It is, furthermore, the room in which I was born in 1839.)
“The conclusion of these lines must be for me a debt of gratitude owed to Columbia and its amiable associates, for it is to them I am indebted for having welcomed you, which vividly renewed my memories of Paris, when I had the great pleasure of going to see you during the Great War, alas, of 1914! With all my heart, I am your faithfully devoted, F. P.”
Planté entertained American guests at the time of his farewell recital [see program on the center pages and back cover]. Marguerite Morgan Wolf left a typescript account of the event:
“It has been our privilege to be able to attend ‘A Day of Music’ by the unbelievably joyous Francis Planté. Encores were generously added to the printed program [on which she noted the duration of most works], and at the end of the evening concert no-one wanted to leave.
“The year we heard him I think the concert’s proceeds went to the improvements of the Market Place – or perhaps new sidewalks.
“The privilege of any music lover has been for years almost like a myth. Mr. Planté as was Ravel was a small in size person of independent means. He had a gentle way about him like a country ‘gentilhomme’ who went horseback riding each day as a change from his great love – music. With my mother, and two sisters we were devoted musicians who were in the vicinity of Mont-de-Marsan, near St. Avit, when we decided not to miss the annual Music Festival of which we had heard so much.
“Did anyone ever witness a concert where the applause was discouraged? Mr. Planté had a tiny bell like a silver half of grapefruit at the end of the keyboard with which he felt so ‘at home’ that in a gentle yet firm way he rang the bell so that he could play the next number.
“We had the honor and thrill to meet Mr. Planté and as we talked music – one of us asked his secret ‘supplesse’ [suppleness], and he [replied that he has] lived as he had since childhood. He won first prize at the age of 11[sic].
“Before the afternoon concert telegrams and messages were read aloud. Paderewski’s wire of over 100 words, Cortot’s telegram were two of the many tributes which were shared with the audience which was crowded in the Town Hall. After a musical[e] in our honor a rare smile lighted the face of A. Brailowsky who told us he was fortunate enough to play for M. Planté who was so happy to help he wrote an introduction to his friends The Royal Family of Belgium, real musicians. Alexander Brailowsky went to Bruxelles and the door having been opened thus A. Brailowsky’s career was launched in a magic way.”
Planté also encouraged and advised the young Clara Sansoni, who had earlier left Turin for studies in Barcelona with Albeniz; Busoni, Cortot, Diémer, Lazare-Lévy, Long, Loyonnet, Marguerite de Pachmann, and Viñes were said to also have received hiscouncil.
A final glimpse of Planté comes from Milhaud:
“We stopped at Mont-de-Marsan because I wanted to pay homage to the oldest living French pianist. It was thrilling to meet one of the greatest virtuosos of the nineteenth century, a living witness to a period of music so remote from our own. Planté lived on a magnificent estate. In spite of his great age, he was still very active and year after year indulged in his favorite sport of hunting. Every morning in bed he had the latest works of contemporary pianoforte music brought to him, and amused himself by annotating and fingering them. He gave me the pleasant surprise of hearing him play one of my works, using his own fingering. He was the very incarnation of a pianist, and especially marvelous interpreting his beloved romantics, for playing with special qualities of precision, elegance, and subtlety in the use of the pedals are required. Here his technical mastery was particularly superb. He would comment on them as he played: ‘Pretty modulation. . . lovely passage. . . Bravo! Bravo! What do you think of this tune? Adorable!’
“Our parting from him was rather melancholy. With a plaid shawl round his shoulders, he came as far as the car with us. The sunlight was gliding the trees, whose yellowing leaves already spoke of autumn.”
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
In listening to Saint-Saëns playing his own music, one notes a spirit that seems almost contemporary; certainly out of sync with the times in which he lived. He despised the 19th-century mannerism of having the hands apart, favoring a limpid articulated virtuosity that avoided exaggeration. His principal teacher was Stamaty, who was also instructing Gottschalk at the time; the latter was jealous of Saint-Saëns’ abilities. Rossini too furthered Saint-Saëns’ musical and intellectual potential by inviting him to his salon. Once, when Louis Diémer failed to join him there, Saint-Saëns read both of the piano parts to Liszt’s Les Preludes; indeed, works for two pianos fascinated him throughout his life, leading him to transcribe for two pianos both Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor and the Liszt Sonata.
Saint-Saëns was not only a composer who mastered every genre, but an adept pianist, organist, conductor, accompanist, and chamber musician. He had a special interest in the music of the Baroque. He edited Rameau’s keyboard works, played them in recital, and conducted excerpts from his operas and ballets. According to Brian Rees, he also “put forward the suggestion that a study of Bach’s word setting in the cantatas sometimes provided clues to the moods and coloring of the Preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier, although he himself preferred impassive performances to the ‘combat areas of high emotions’, which certain artists cultivated.”
Mozart, however, may have been the composer closest to his heart. Mozart’s Concerto in D minor was a particular favorite: Saint-Saëns often showed his approval of visiting young musicians by taking the solo and inviting the guest – in 1905 Ignaz Friedman – to play the orchestral part. Marcel Proust heard Saint-Saëns perform a Mozart concerto and wrote in Le Gaulois (14 January 1895):
“At the Conservatoire concert yesterday, the pianist in the Mozart concerto was Saint-Saëns. Coming away, one met many people who had been disappointed and who, not knowing why this was so, gave different reasons for it; he had played too fast, he had played without expression, the music hadn’t suited him. Well, here is the reason: it was because it had been truly beautiful. For true beauty is the only thing that cannot respond to what a romantic imagination anticipates. Everything else lives up to those preconceived ideas: dexterity is amazing, vulgarity, soothing, sensuousness, thrilling, claptrap, dazzling. But beauty which from the beginning of all things has been joined to truth in an eternal friendship has not got all these charms at its disposal.
“In Saint-Saëns’ playing there were no pianissimos where you feel you’ll faint if they go on any longer, and which are cut off just in the nick of time by a forte, no broken chords sending instantaneous shivers down your back, none of those fortissimos which leave you bruised from head to foot, as if you had been surf-bathing, none of those pianist’s writhings and tossed back locks of hair, which infect the purity of music with the sensuality of the dance, which appeal to the listener’s senses, to her idle fancies, and supply her with an element of pleasure, and a reason for enthusiasm, the framework of what she will remember and the substance of what she will afterwards talk about. There was none of this in Saint-Saëns’ playing. But his playing was regal. Now kings do not make their appearance wearing golden crowns and being carried in palanquins on slaves’ shoulders. It is by the way they bow, smile, hold out a hand, offer a chair, ask a question, or reply, that great kings, like great actors, can be recognised. It is the parvenu who is stuck up, the charlatan who shows off. But the king’s grace and nobility are so natural to him that his nobility is no more astonishing to us than the nobility of an oak-tree nor his grace than the grace of a rose-wand. ” (Translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner)
The improvised cadenza to Saint-Saëns’ Africa fantasie for piano and orchestra was written with his trips to Egypt and the North African coast in mind: during the composer’s sojourns to Cairo he was received by royalty at a palace on Roda Island. Saint-Saëns has perhaps not been given sufficient credit for the skill with which he later integrated African folk melodies into his works.
Louis Diémer (1843-1919)
A concert pianist, pedagogue, and career-builder of significance, as well as the founder of an eponymous piano competition, Louis Diémer taught, among others, Robert Casadesus, Casella, Cortot, Lazare-Lévy, Nat, and Risler. He was a great celebrity. In her novel Claudine in Paris, Colette described him, memorably, as concealing “a piano keyboard, without the black notes, in his mouth”
Diémer was closely involved with many of the leading composers of his time. His association with Saint-Saëns proved particularly fruitful. He introduced the Third Concerto in 1870, taking the second piano while Delaborde (Alkan’s step-son) was soloist, then later with orchestra. In 1885, he introduced the Rhapsodie d’Auvergne under Colonne. The premiere of Carnival of the Animals in 1886 had Diémer and the composer at the keyboards, while Saint-Saëns’ Caprice Héroïque for two pianos received its first performance in 1898 with Diémer and Cortot. The same mania for multiple pianos that, in 1880, led Saint-Saëns to perform Bach’s Concerto for four keyboards with Diémer, Raoul Pugno, and Charles-Wilfred Bériot provoked the composer to arrange the Caprice Héroïque for eight hands, in which version he performed it in 1899 with Diémer, Fauré, and Cortot. Saint-Saëns dedicated his fifth concerto to Diémer; likewise Franck dedicated his Variations Symphoniques to him and Fauré his Barcarolle no. 12, Op. 106b. This last dedication led Saint-Saëns to write Fauré on 27 December 1915: “I am awaiting impatiently, so I can learn it, your new Barcarolle which Diémer played to me and which I found delightful.”
It is unfortunate that Diémer recorded none of Franck’s music; he wrote that “Franck, with whom I worked with on this score [Variations symphoniques], gave me some indications which are contrary to the interpretations by contemporary artists.” Indeed, his few recordings are mostly of his own compositions. However, he did record a highly correct Chopin nocturne and a version of Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song enlivened by articulate accenting and phrasing.
As a strict Lutheran of Alsatian origin, Diémer had a very different temperament from that of the “méridional” Planté. Indeed, despite having received invaluable advice from Rossini and Liszt, he was noted for the coldness and precision of his playing – a tendency that probably owes more to his upbringing than to his interest in Baroque music, which Saint-Saëns shared. (In the 1860s Diémer began performing on the harpsichord.) Nonetheless many considered his performance of the Beethoven Fifth Concerto to be in the class of Anton Rubinstein’s, and in 1902, he became the first pianist to play both Brahms concertos in France, having met the composer years earlier during a German tour. A contrary view of this active pianist may be read in Casella’s memoirs.
Isidore Philipp (1863-1957)
A formidable teacher, pianist, and editor, Isidore Philipp was of Hungarian origin but spent most of his life in Paris, except for a period when he fled the Nazis and lived in exile in New York. When Philipp approached Saint-Saëns for piano lessons, the older composer recognized in this developing artist one who would champion his music. Philipp received letters from his mentor explaining details of his compositions: years later his reminiscences of Saint-Saëns appeared in the Revue Musicale. Philipp decisively chose to record only works by Saint-Saëns, especially the chamber music. (Philipp made acetates of minor Italian works, published by Vox in 1950, possibly discs used to demonstrate a series he had recently edited.) Philipp’s pupil Marcelle Herrenschmidt (1895-1974) was also his assistant, perhaps more: letters from his friend Busoni bear warm greetings to her as well. The recording they made together of Saint-Saëns’ Scherzo for two pianos provides a unique example of the two-piano tradition once so characteristic of French musical life.
A volume of correspondence between Philipp and Busoni is being edited by Laureto Rodoni in Switzerland.
A composer, influential pedagogue, organist and piano virtuoso, Lazare Lévy (the hyphen came later) was born in Brussels of French parents who had fled their native Moselle in order not to become Prussian citizens after Bismarck defeated the French in 1871 and occupied this part of the country. Lazare-Lévy’s talent was first discovered by an elegant Parisian lady who heard the 11 year-old blondish boy play Chopin’s Grande Polonaise in the hat shop Lazare’s sister Jeannette owned in Paris, near the Louvre Museum. Diémer soon supervised the young boy’s studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where Lazare-Lévy received a Premier Prix in 1898. The pianist also studied harmony with Lavignac and counterpoint with Gédalge. Among his comrades and early music partners were Casella, Cortot, Enesco, Monteux, Ravel, and Thibaud. At age twenty, Lazare-Lévy made his début récital at the Concerts Colonne, under Colonne’s baton, in Schumann’s A-minor piano concerto. Lazare-Lévy premiered works by French composers of his time, including Dukas and Milhaud. He was also an early champion of Albéniz, whose Iberia (Book I) he played in 1911. Lazare-Lévy shared a warm and friendly relationship with his elder peers Harold Bauer, Paderewski, Philipp, and Planté – who often invited him to his St. Avit home to play and play: as his grandson recalls, they went on till the younger Lazare-Lévy tired out. On the other hand, he never managed to get along with the deeply Catholic Viñes, who in 1899 ended up quarrelling with his fellow countryman Albeniz, a defender of Dreyfus.
In the front row of Lazare-Lévy’s earliest recitals was Saint-Saëns, who made it a point “to boost the young man’s career.” Saint-Saëns considered him to possess “that rare union of technical perfection and musicality.” As he underlined in a letter to the pianist written in 1903, “I doubt one could play a better Chopin than you do. As for the Etude en forme de valse, nobody can – and I am sure of this, being the composer of the piece!” Lazare-Lévy’s daughter-in-law recalls Saint-Saëns wanting him to perform only his own works. Saint-Saëns also introduced him to Algiers, where the composer, shortly before his death, attended Lazare-Lévy’s 1921 début recital. Lazare-Lévy performed Saint-Saëns’ works (the Fifth Concerto above all) throughout Europe, Israel, and Japan, along with Franck’s Variations Symphoniques and the Schubert-Liszt Wanderer Fantasy.
In his twenty-fifth year, Lazare-Lévy co-authored a Méthode Supérieure for piano published by Diémer (whose assistant he became), though he would later advocate a much more personal and innovative piano technique, involving more hand and arm technique than pure finger technique, with the cushioned part of the fingers going deeply into the key. He hated a thin sound and never made his students practice in dotted rhythms or with the hand held like a conch shell. He hated curved fingers on the keyboard in the Marguerite Long style; nor did he play octaves from the wrist with a motionless arm. He learned a great deal from Busoni, whose portrait, given to him by the musician, he kept above his piano. Yvonne Loriod summed up his approach: find the best fingering (he had a wonderful sense for it), liberate the hands, use the thumb correctly and, above all, use the natural weight of the arm. To him, music came first. His art was based upon legato and a sense of cantabile. He simply ignored students who were not musically gifted and railed against musical distortion, so-called “traditions” and egotism in music.
Lazare-Lévy was a distinguished professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, first as a temporary teacher (1914-16 and 1921-3) and then as Cortot’s successor (1923-41; reappointed 1944-53). His pupils include such luminaries as the pianists Monique Haas, Clara Haskil, Solomon, Alexandre Uninsky, and Madeleine de Valmalete (Arbiter CD 144), organist Marcel Dupré, and composers John Cage, Lukas Foss, and Oskar Morawetz, to name but a few.
Lazare-Lévy toured throughout Europe, in Africa and Asia. His strong personality made him reject the most listened-to piano pieces favored by his peers. He was almost the only French pianist of his time to play Scriabin in public and probably one the first to defend all Schubert’s keyboard music and even Brahms’, teaching them extensively. A prominent Viennese critic noted in 1930: “Lazare-Lévy takes his place among the most powerful talents of the piano”.
The Second World War took a terrible toll on Lazare-Lévy and his family. As a Jew in occupied France, his life was held in balance yet he survived only through constant movement and vigilance, hiding, adopting aliases and using false papers. The Conservatoire position he’d held was nevertheless given to Marcel Ciampi and Lazare-Lévy never recovered it. He tried in vain to emigrate to the United States. His youngest son, Phillipe, a prominent resistance fighter, was betrayed to the Gestapo by two French Nazi collaborators, captured, then transferred to the Drancy concentration camp where he was recognised as a Jew and tortured by SS officer Aloïs Brunner. It should be noted that in spite of repeated distress calls, Cortot, who held a high position in the pro-Nazi Vichy Government as Minister of Culture, absolutely refused to help either Lazare-Lévy or his captured son, who died in Auschwitz along with 17 or 19 members of their family. As his 91 year-old niece recalls, Lazare-Lévy went to Cortot’s home in Neuilly, entering the Occupied Zone with false papers. Cortot said to Lazare-Lévy: “Qu’est-ce que tu veux que j’y fasse ?!! Ce sont des choses qui arrivent.” [“What do you want me to do?! These things happen.”] Then he slammed the door in Lazare-Lévy’s face, this after more than forty years of what Lazare-Lévy believed to be friendship. (An atypical photo of Cortot was taken at this time, smiling while dining at the elegant Hotel Ritz in 1942, sitting next to a laughing woman wearing a silly hat: Mrs. Albert Speer – reproduced in Speer’s autobiography. In his Spandau Diaries, Hitler’s architect nostalgically recalled precious evenings chez Cortot, listening to his Chopin and Debussy, citing the prelude Cathedrale engloutie.)
All his life Lazare-Lévy was close to prominent figures in literary, musical and political circles: among his close friends were Edwin Fischer, André Marchal, Rachmaninoff, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and André Malraux. A very discreet and humble man, he nevertheless played with the greatest conductors of his time: Desiré Inghelbrecht, Mitropoulos, Monteux, Munch, Paul Paray, and Weingartner. Not interested at all in recording discs, he left only a few 78s and a pair of Mozart sonatas on LP. Quite shy and nervous (he suffered from terrible stage-fright), he would try to imagine that the first row of the audience were only wearing underpants! His legendary Jewish humor and wit are said to have been worthy of Moszkowski’s: unfortunately Lazare-Lévy’s version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, played on the piano with ten fingers and a shoe brush, was never filmed.
Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943)
Photos of this dark-haired Spanish pianist taken during his youth reveal the prominent moustache that would become legendary. Viñes was one of those beings who appeared from afar to champion the Avant-Garde of his time. It was the experimental and unfamiliar which attracted Viñes to introduce a great body of musical literature, allying himself with Satie and Ravel. His influence went beyond mere music: according to Marguerite Long, “Viñes had a mind open to all the arts and, precociously rich in encyclopedic knowledge, introduced [Ravel] to the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Edgar Allan Poe and Huysmans.”
Viñes idolized Debussy, who in turn admired Viñes’s interpretations of his own works. Viñes’ diary informs us, for instance, that Debussy would often request a run-through at his home before Viñes would introduce a work to the public. At times, he reports, Debussy was warm and encouraging. He thought enough of Viñes to entrust him with the premiere of, and award him with the dedication of, the Poissons d’Or, a gesture which Viñes cites often. In addition, they publicly performed Debussy’s Nocturnes and Iberia in their two piano versions.
One pupil of Debussy’s, Maurice Dumesnil, mentions how the composer’s reprimands and objections to his playing of Poissons changed when “I came to the conclusion that the interpretation of Ricardo Viñes, to whom [it] is dedicated, had become inseparable from his own conception, so I took it as a model and subsequently won approval.” This suggests that Debussy had empathy for Viñes, yet nothing is absolute, for we read in a letter that the composer wrote to Georges Jean-Aubry, soon after the premiere of Images II (10 April 1908):
“One should gently persuade Viñes that he needs a lot of work on these Images. He clearly doesn’t understand the architecture and, in spite of his incontestable virtuosity, he distorts the expression.”
After this, Debussy stopped granting Viñes the honor of giving the first performances of his works. Indeed, Viñes introduced only a few Preludes in 1911 and 1913. Twenty years after Debussy’s death, Viñes spoke over the radio of his first performances of works he gave by his late mentor: Pour le Piano, Estampes, Masques and L’isle Joyeuse, and Images: Books I and II.
Included on this disc are the musical excerpts surviving from this broadcast: Hommage à Rameau, a work Viñes premiered, and the Etude X (Pour les sonorités opposées). The Hommage is declaimed in a lost tongue, making one sense the composer’s imprint behind the articulation, sonic balance, and momentum of its main theme. The Etude belongs to a period of modernism, best explored by Yvonne Loriod, whose performances impress through their knowledge of where they might lead. Viñes’s releasing of the final arpeggiated chord is in itself a transcendent act: such moments make one grateful for the survival of this rare performance.
Aside from his Debussy and Falla, most of Viñes recordings are disappointing, yet the two works heard here are more spontaneous than his studio recordings, filled with empathy verging on telepathy, essential shades of Debussy’s remote, subtle, guarded self. They make the listener feel as if Debussy were seated nearby, deeply listening.
©2006: Allan Evans and Frédéric Gaussin (Lazare-Lévy essay).