recordings were highly regarded in their day. The EMG Monthly
Letter even hailed the Ravel cycle as definitive. Yet somehow
the name of Monique Haas (1909-1987) has not remained one to
conjure with, as has that of Walter Gieseking, the first to
offer the (virtually) complete piano music of the two great
for most of her career Haas was a valued DG artist. Starting
before the war but signally from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s
she set down a fairly wide range of music for that company.
Debussy and Ravel were naturally prominent and her mono recording
of the Etudes won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1954. A stereo
version of the Préludes followed in the 1960s, but it was only
in her later years that the French company Erato enabled her
to set down an “intégrale”.
with Gieseking and other LP cycles, we obviously get the “canonical”
works. Of Debussy, there are no “Images oubliées”, “La Boîte
à joujoux”, “Epigraphes antiques” (solo version), as well as
the various odds and ends – by no means negligible – that have
turned up over the years. Most Ravel cycles today would include
the piano version of “La Valse”, but she does team up with Ina
Marika – a partner of long standing – to give us “Ma Mère l’Oye”.
remember hearing one of her recordings of the first book of
“Préludes” on the radio in my university days and rather wondering
what the fuss was about – it all seemed a bit too plain and
sensible. Perhaps I was not then mature enough to appreciate
the sheer culture of this beautifully proportioned playing,
I wondered as I began listening to the first of these records.
Gerald Larner’s booklet essay stresses that Haas worked with
two teachers – Lazare-Lévy and Robert Casadesus – who rejected
the shallow touch once favoured in France. She also had lessons
with Rudolf Serkin in Switzerland. She nevertheless displays
the typically French virtues of clarity and proportion. It was
Gieseking’s more volatile, imaginative approach which established
Debussy and Ravel in the international repertoire, but now the
battle has been long won we can appreciate a set of performances
which preserves the sort of playing Marguerite Long might have
given us, and as such are likely to be close to what the composers
another Casadesus pupil, François-Joël Thiollier, seeks to justify
the early salon works by simply making them as ravishing as
possible – sometimes with remarkable success – Haas makes no
special pleading. Instead, she explores their purely musical
virtues. The left-hand quavers that open the “Rêverie”, for
instance, are not just a murmuring accompaniment but take on
an independent life. Carefully balanced as they are against
the coolly shaped melody, the piece acquires a level of contrapuntal
interest which has one questioning whether it is such a “minor”
work after all. And, if you might find Thiollier equally interesting
in the atmospheric pieces, those based on the dance – “Valse
romantique” and “Mazurka” – benefit from Haas’s steadier rhythm.
Very recently, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Chandos) has married Haas’s
sense of the dance with Thiollier’s ravishing textures in the
“Valse romantique”. His ongoing cycle has yet to deal with most
of the early works.
is always loyal towards Debussy’s tempo markings. The “Danse”
is marked Allegretto and she makes no attempt to push it beyond
that. Gieseking clearly found the marked tempo unexciting and
dashed through it at an Allegro. Bavouzet has gone one better
and shown that a fast tempo can be made effective. In the “Suite
Bergamasque”, which perhaps gathers together the finest of Debussy’s
early inspirations, Haas’s elegant, unhurried approach to the
Prélude (marked Moderato), the Menuet (marked Andantino) and
especially the Passepied (marked Allegretto ma non troppo) seems
to me to present this as music with more substance than usual.
You will have heard more obviously ravishing performances of
“Clair de lune”, but this one fits its context.
Debussy moves towards maturity, Haas is predictably excellent
in the neo-classical “Pour le piano”. Her way with the “Estampes”
and the two books of “Images” is to concentrate on their musical
qualities and let the picturesque aspects take care of themselves.
This is perhaps what Debussy would have wished, since he gradually
moved away from music which was too overtly illustrative. Listening
to Haas on her own terms I found her entirely convincing, querying
only a somewhat staid “Mouvement”. When I came to make comparisons
I realized that both Bavouzet and Noriko Ogawa (BIS) found even
more in “Estampes”. So did Ogawa in the first book of “Images”
- which Bavouzet has not yet recorded. However, if I am giving
the impression that Haas is inclined to be coolly correct, this
is certainly not always so and I should be tempted to describe
her performance of the second book of “Images” as great. While
in Sviatoslav Richter’s performance of “Cloches à travers les
feuilles” each bell comes from a different distance, Haas distinguishes
equally clearly between them, but has them all in the foreground,
to quite fascinating effect. She manages to find more movement
– albeit of a very shadowy kind – in the moon-blanched landscape
of the “temple qui fut” than Ogawa. Above all, her glinting,
almost unpedalled texture at the beginning of “Poissons d’or”
is extraordinary and her goldfish dart and cavort where Ogawa’s
seem a little lazy. Another piece from Debussy’s “middle” period
from which Haas distils more poetry than I’ve heard before is
“D’un cahier d’esquisses”.
the other hand, her first book of “Préludes” still seems to
me as plain, sensible and two-dimensional as it did all those
years ago. It is in these pieces that Debussy’s imagination
took its most amazing, visionary leap. It would seem that Haas’s
virtues of musicality, clarity, proportion and good sense aren’t
enough here. It was at this point that the classical school
of French pianism fell short and something like Gieseking’s
volatility and sheer inspiration was needed to reveal this music
to the world. If you don’t want a 50-year-old recording, Thiollier
offers a cheap and remarkably convincing attempt at the Gieseking
am I trying to be too profound? Maybe Haas was just slightly
off-form that day. I enjoyed Book Two much more. Indeed, two
pieces which call for visionary involvement, “La Terrasse des
audiences du clair de lune” and “Canope”, attain a tension equal
to any others I have heard.
the time of the “Etudes” Debussy was systematically exploring
his French heritage. Modernist as these pieces are, they are
at the same time the sublimation of the French piano school.
This makes Haas a pretty well ideal interpreter of them. I hope
one day to compare her earlier version. I compared a couple
with the Rahkonen performances which I continue to admire and
found them not dissimilar in either conception or achievement.
The last word on these fascinating pieces has clearly not been
said. Ogawa set them down in July 2007 and her recording is
eagerly awaited. Bavouzet will presumably not be long coming.
Watch this space …
virtues of cool clarity and unhurried musicality are exactly
those which Ravel demanded of his interpreters. Logically, then,
she was even more suited to Ravel than to Debussy. Oddly enough,
that isn’t how it seemed at first.
cross-rhythms at the start of “Noctuelles”
– the first of the “Miroirs” – are perhaps
intended to puzzle the ear, but I have
heard more sense made of them than this.
In general, both her night moths and
her “Oiseaux tristes” – the second “Miroir”
– seem a little heavy on their wings.
The “Barque sur l’océan” lilts on the
waves attractively but “Alborada del
gracioso” is laboured. She seems to
have a slight mechanical difficulty
over the notorious repeated note theme
and some of the fuller textures have
a skimpy sound. The “Vallée des cloches”
is disappointing when one recalls her
achievement in Debussy’s “Cloches à
travers le feuilles”.
d’eau” also trickles along amiably but falls short of Ravel’s
instruction that it is to be played “like Liszt, of course”.
The slower music of the coda perhaps gives the clearest idea
of what’s wrong. There’s a nervous, coiled intensity to even
the sweetest of Ravel’s phrases. As this performance shows,
unfortunately, there’s no better way of demonstrating how essential
this intensity is to successful Ravel interpretation, than to
play the music without it.
where do we go to hear this nervous intensity? We can just leave
the record playing, actually. Haas takes the “Pavane” unusually
slowly but completely successfully, revealing a depth of utterance
not often heard, but with no trace of heaviness. The minor pieces
that follow are as effective as they can be but “Ma Mère l’Oye”
is once again superficial, almost reduced to wallpaper music.
Tombeau de Couperin” is another weak performance. The “Fugue”
is one of Ravel’s least accessible pieces but can be made poignant
if the accents in the sighing theme really penetrate the piano,
and the listener.
the other hand, “Gaspard” gets a very fine performance indeed.
The long melancholy lines of “Ondine” cast their spell, “Le
Gibet” is bleakly evocative and “Scarbo”, while maybe not one
to rocket you out of your seat, has rare malevolence.
remaining two works are quite supreme. The “Sonatine” is often
made to sound like sugar and spice and all things nice. Haas
digs well below the surface to discover disturbing undercurrents
of dark emotion. So, too, in “Valses”, where Ravel’s bitter-sweet
sentiments and acerbic harmonies are explored so fully as to
offer some real revelations, at least to my ears.
you have to take all or nothing, where does this leave us?
reviewed a great deal of Debussy recently. Those who have been
following it all will be rather tired of my conclusion that
there will never be a best version and those who have fallen
under the spell of this music should get as many complete cycles
as they can. But I’m afraid this remains true.
of fine piano playing will be grateful for a set which conserves
the best features of the classic French school and therefore
has roots going back to Debussy and Ravel themselves. On any
level, there are some supreme performances here. In the case
of Debussy the disappointments are relative – mainly the first
book of Préludes. With Ravel, matters are more complicated since
the gap between the supreme performances and the bland ones
is much greater. If you are not allergic to historical sound,
line up Haas with Gieseking for a multi-dimensional view. The
Haas recordings are sonically excellent for their date. But
I repeat, if in addition you collect the ongoing cycles by Bavouzet
and Ogawa, your pocket might regret it, but I don’t think any
other part of you will.
disparity between a pianist who explores the darker undertones
of certain Ravel works as few could, and who blandly ignores
these same undertones in other works, continues to nag at my
just emerging from a sorry mess – the Hatto affair – which has
resulted in far-flung accusations that critics have no ears,
or do not know how to use them. Anyone with elementary hearing
facilities, we’re told, should have heard that this wasn’t all
the work of the same pianist. Calls for blind reviewing are
still made from time to time.
what worries me. If I’d heard this Ravel blind, what conclusion
could I have made except that it was the work of two pianists?
And if I were allowed the use of my eyes - to look at the booklet,
but adopting an unprejudiced stance, then, noting that the 2-piano
“Ma Mère l’Oye” gets a very bland performance, I might conclude
that “Miroirs”, “Jeux” and “Tombeau” were actually played by
Ina Marika … or the other way round. It is true that there are
certain pianistic features common to all the performances –
the general concern for clarity and proportion, clean textures
and so on. But Ina Marika had been collaborating with Haas since
at least the late 1930s so I suppose one would quite likely
sound like a pallid copy of the other.
only about ten per cent of me really thinks this. The other
ninety per cent is just responding to provocation with provocation.
from time to time in recording history a booked session has
been “saved” by an understudy when the real artist fell ill,
who would really know? After all, Georg Szell admitted that
his first recording – “Don Juan” – was issued as the work
of Richard Strauss, who arrived late for the session.
am emphatically NOT suggesting any form of deception or duplicity
on the part of anybody currently connected with Erato. The
original LPs were attributed as here so any such “substitution”
would have been made nearly forty years ago and covered up
by people who, if still alive at all, are presumably long
may also be that all these Ravel performances are equally
fine – or equally bad – and the qualitative gap I seem to
hear is just further proof that critics have no ears.
the same, it would be interesting if anyone with longish memories
or inside information can say:
Haas did in fact tend to probe deeply into the music one day
and skate blandly over the surface of it the next.
her hand-stretch was. Most of the time in these performances
I note she splits anything bigger than an octave, but the
left-hands ninths near the start of “Le Gibet” are played
together. So are most of the biggish chords at the start of
“Valses”. I suppose it would be possible for a pianist to
be able to play ninths with the left hand but not the right,
but it would be pretty unusual. I noted this only towards
the end so would have to listen to the whole lot again to
follow it through.
any records exist of Ina Marika playing this repertoire, or
indeed, if anybody knows anything about her.
thing I do hope to be able to check. Haas’s earlier DG recordings
include both “Valses nobles” and “Tombeau”. It will be interesting
to see if she shows there the same extreme sympathy for the
former but not the latter.
don’t take this “provocative afterthought” too seriously!