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Madeleine de Valmalète: Rediscovered master
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Fantasia in D minor, K.397* [4‘57"]; Sonata in D, K. 576 * [14‘01"]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Le Tombeau de Couperin [19‘57"]; Jeux d’eau [4‘53"]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11 [5‘17"]
Aleksandr LABIEFF arr. LISZT L’Alouette [3‘40"]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Gopak [1‘23"]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) Ritual Fire Dance [3‘06"]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) March from Love of Three Oranges [1‘28"]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Barcarolle, op. 10/3 [4‘08"]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Feux d' artifice (Preludes Bk. II) [3‘36"]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) Nocturne in E flat, op. 36* [6‘14"]; Impromptu in F minor, op. 31* [3‘25"]
Madeleine de Valmalète - piano
Rec. Berlin 1928, except Fauré (Dec, 1961) and Mozart (Grenoble, Feb. 1992). *first commercial release ADD/DDD
ARBITER 144 [77:01]

 

Madeleine de Valmalète (1899–1999), pianist.

‘Never heard of her’, you might be thinking and I can’t really blame you for that. She’s hardly a household name today; more a connoisseur’s pianist. But barely six years after her death some wider recognition of her art and reputation is urgently in order.

Born to the rank of marquise, her family moved in artistic circles – her mother was a painter, her brother a musician’s agent. She was nothing if not an independent spirit: an athlete, cyclist and the second woman in France to gain a driver’s licence. This energy and enthusiasm imbued her playing, even in the most trying of situations during the World Wars, or giving a recital in an igloo during a tour of Finland!

One might assume hers to have been an average talent; chiefly an occupier of teaching positions at reputable conservatoires rather than of major salons across France and Europe. Well, yes – she did indeed teach prolifically in Paris, Grenoble and Marseilles – but was, in her day, admired by many for her art. Fauré, Saint-Saens, Ravel and Busoni - she played for them all. She was partnered by true greats in her music-making: Toscanini, Furtwängler, Paray and Menuhin to name but four.

She firmly belonged to that curious genre of French musicians in the early twentieth century: lady pianists with great technique and superb interpretational skill who never quite made it to the lofty heights they should rightly have occupied. This group includes, in my opinion, the likes of Yvonne Lefébure, Marcelle Meyer, and above all Germaine Thyssens-Valentin. But dismiss any idea of de Valmalète being a feminine pianist just of decorum. She is probing yet honest, stylistically noble yet appropriate, amazingly modern and thoroughly absorbing.

During a life that fully spanned a century, there is little pianistically speaking she might not have heard. In later years she was known to keep an open mind, though her approach to playing was very much that formed decades earlier at the Paris Conservatoire. She graduated aged 14 with a grand prix personally presented by Fauré, the Conservatoire’s director. Her maître, Joseph Morpain, whom she revered greatly also taught Clara Haskil.

If she had watchwords they could well have been fidelity to the score, integrity of interpretation and impeccable technique. Though modern, as I have suggested, she remained only too aware of the history of her instrument, being an accomplished clavichord player and much admired in this regard by Cortot. This keyboard history is something to which she was almost a living monument, given her long active career.

The recordings presented here span the 64 years from 1928 to 1992. We are taken on a journey from the first ever recording of Le Tombeau de Couperin, about which Ravel expressed his appreciation, to a fantaisie and sonata, recorded at the age of 93, when de Valmalète wanted to "treat herself to some Mozart".

True, the Mussorgsky and Labieff might seem strange choices today, but they are idiomatically played. The Debussy and Fauré could hardly be bettered, even by starrier names whose reputations are founded on these composers. Liszt’s B minor sonata was by all accounts stunning in de Valmalète’s hands, so all the more pity that a reading of it has not survived. The Hungarian Rhapsody however provides some idea of her prowess with Liszt.

Her first recordings were from 1928 and were made for Polydor and include Ravel, Prokofiev and de Falla. Listen and realize just how daring this was for a pianist at the time: contemporary music! Yet they are played with all the seriousness and devotion one might give to Bach or Beethoven, who also featured in her repertoire. Of course, there is a fair amount of hiss to listen through, but the music is worth every second of effort.

Which makes me think just how effortless the Mozart seems. The chords are rich, the fingering fluent and crisp. One can think of several pianists half de Valmalète’s age who would struggle to reach a similar result, but time shall not wither the validity of her approach, nor age the execution of it.

Hopefully having sold you on investigating this release, what else is there of hers on record? Alas there is so much that never made it to the studio, and much of what we have (more Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Milhaud and Albéniz) comes from private recordings of lesser sound quality. Arbiter could hardly do better than follow this current release by issuing her Chopin Ballades. These were made for EMI in 1975 and unaccountably never commercially released. There’s also the three other Mozart sonatas she treated herself to in 1992. In all reality the treat will be ours.

Evan Dickerson



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