Madeleine de Valmalète
‘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
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.