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Rediscovered Master - Madeleine de Valmalète
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]
ALABIEFF
L' Alouette arranged Franz LISZT (1811-1886) [3.40]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Gopak [1.23]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
March (Love of Three Oranges) [1.28]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1874-1944)
Barcarolle, op. 10/3 [4.08]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11 [5.17]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Feux d' artifice (Preludes Bk. II) [3.36]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Ritual Fire Dance [3.06]
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)
Nocturne in E flat, op. 36* [6.14]
Impromptu in F minor, op. 31* [3.25]
Madeleine de Valmalète (piano)
recorded 1928-1992; *previously unpublished
ARBITER 144 [77.01]

 

I think it would be rather spoiling the biographical fun to be gained by reading the liner lines to repeat too many of the facts here. But it remains true that Madeleine de Valmalète had a remarkable career and indeed a remarkable life, as befits a woman who was born in 1899 and died on the threshold of the twenty first century. As with so many distinguished French pianists she was a pupil of Isidor Philipp at the Paris Conservatoire. Saint-Saëns admired her playing and she was soon giving local premieres – MacDowell’s First Concerto for instance. She was a member of the Trio de Paris with violinist Yvonne Astruc (splendid player, more re-issues to be hoped for) and cellist Marguerite Caponsacchi. And in 1928 she went into the recording studios for the first time – in Berlin. Her repertoire was wide – from Bach to Milhaud and Prokofiev – though in later years she was immersed more in teaching at the École Normale de Musique, an invitation extended by Cortot. Despite her teaching commitments she did continue concert engagements, though increasingly confining herself to her native country. In her mid seventies she recorded the Chopin Ballades – though these were unissued – and in her early eighties she ventured the Liszt B minor in concert. Nothing daunted when she was ninety-three she was taped in the Mozart performances included here and her death occurred as recently as 1999. Truly a remarkable life.

The performances thankfully are no less compelling. The 1928 Polydor discs are all here. So are private recordings from 1961 and from 1992. The most significant of all the discs is the first ever recording of Le Tombeau de Couperin. On this evidence I think of her Ravel rather as I think of George Copeland’s recordings of Debussy – crisp, rhythmically incisive and mercurial. They stand at a profound tangent from the foggy School of Gieseking (beautiful though that School is), as indeed does Copeland’s Debussy. There’s clarity, evenness of articulation and incision in the Prelude, and a refusal to be seduced by the pedal as well as a playful darting, alert and whimsical but very articulate Fugue – contrast with Gieseking’s 1954 limpid and patrician moderato. Her Forlane is elfin and treble orientated; Gieseking’s is pawkier and more earnest. And the Rigaudon finds her turning corners with great alacrity; contrast and characterisation are paramount. In all this is a fascinating document showing, once again, how urgent and dynamic performances of Debussy and Ravel were in the first third of the twentieth century.

The remainder of the 1928 sessions see some ingenious textual emendations in her performances, though she always keeps within strict stylistic bounds in such as the de Falla, which is despatched with élan and ebullience. Other standouts are the brilliantly exciting Prokofiev and the fierce virtuosity of her Debussy.

The 1961 Fauré performances make their first appearances here. The Nocturne is attractive though less compelling than a 1956 performance by French contemporary Germaine Thyssens-Valentin. Occasionally de Valmalète’s rhythm is not quite steady enough and though the finger slips are trivial there’s a want of real intimacy. Over thirty years later she was taped in Mozart, where she proves indomitable and nimble-fingered. Slips are neither here nor there and the playing retains a clarity and surety that is astounding in a ninety-three year old. There’s no trace of another contemporary Marcelle Meyer’s almost hectoring drama in Mozart – not that Meyer’s is necessarily a bad interpretative viewpoint – but there is a lot of freshness and command in de Valmalète’s playing.

So, splendid notes, an unjustly overlooked musician and rare recordings. The transfers of the Polydors have retained a relatively high level of surface noise. Ears will filter it out and hear the treble colours, as well as studio "presence." There’s a brief moment of tape instability in the Fauré Nocturne. The Mozarts are privately recorded but in fine sound. Altogether a distinguished release.

Jonathan Woolf

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