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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Complete Music for Solo Piano
Les Pièces Brèves Op.84 (published 1902) [14:47]
Thème et Variations Op.73 (1897) [15.04]
Nocturnes Nos. 1-13 (published 1882-1921)  [79:84]
Impromptus [19:31]
Préludes Op.103 (1909-10) [20:55]
Barcarolles (published 1882-1921) [56:13]
Valses-caprices [29:26]
Mazurka in B flat major Op.32 [6:50]
Romance sans paroles Op.17 [6:28]
Jean Hubeau (piano)
rec. Salle Aydar, Paris, October 1988-April 1989
ERATO 2564 69923-6 [4 CDs: 57:39 + 63:47 + 56:13 + 72:35]


Hubeau’s set was recorded in roughly a six-month period between 1988 and 1989. It’s been handily repackaged in an attractive green slimline box housing four CDs. Hubeau is something of a talisman for Fauré chamber playing and his well-loved early 1960s recordings of the cello sonatas with Paul Tortelier shows just how acute and perceptive his understanding was. A quarter of a century later he set down the complete solo piano works. There are many special and treasurable things here but equally there are disappointments.

He plays the Nocturnes with limpid and rounded tone abetted by a warmly intimate recording. So much in his playing is attractive that it seems churlish to nitpick but it must be done. Try the E flat minor Op.33 No.1. Hubeau is attractive but he lacks the greater sense of vertical dynamism of Jean Philippe Collard (EMI but also now on Brilliant Classics 93007), much less the more incendiary pianism of Germaine Thyssens-Valentin (Testament; Préludes SBT1400; Barcarolles and Thème et Variations SBT1215; Nocturnes SBT1262; and the smaller pieces on SBT1263). His basic tempo in the B minor Op.97 is the same as Collard’s but the latter is more evocative, his colours more interventionist, his playing more suggestive and the rhythms more subtly pointed. Hubeau’s F sharp minor Op.104 No.1 is beautifully done; the phrasing is delightful but isn’t it just a touch bland?  Collard offers a more characterful and active solution; he peaks and crests more arrestingly. Even more revealing is the extraordinary way Thyssens-Valentin explores the complexity and modernity of Fauré’s harmonies.

The Impromptus have similar virtues of musicality and tone but listen to the more earthbound Hubeau rhythm in comparison with, say, Collard’s playfully free A flat major Op.26. The difference is palpable. Collard’s syntax is altogether more engaging and warmer in the Barcarolles. Hubeau’s A minor is a halting, rather lumbering affair by the side of Collard’s. The latter too sounds very different from the compellingly introvert slowness propounded by Thyssens-Valentin whose free rubati bring a sense of improvised introspection to the piece. Hubeau also tends to shy away from the sheer strangeness of, for example, the Barcarolle in D minor Op.90, tending to smooth over or elide its sharper, more dangerous corners.

I wouldn’t wish to suggest – and I don’t think I have – that Hubeau is anything other than a poetic and warm player. I’ve heard some strange recital discs from French players of late whose wintry approach is at total odds to the music and leaves me baffled at their indifference. There’s never anything of that sort with Hubeau. His Thème et Variations is in many ways attractive though not consistently so. And the Préludes are also inconsistent. The C sharp minor is rather heavy – turn to the more incisive, eager Collard. And I find the D minor very disappointingly heavy from the outset.

I think my conclusion will be fairly clear. These are attractive but small-scaled, poetic but sometimes unengaged performances. They are often tonally beautiful but equally   too often lack that sense of engagement and frisson that animates the better and best performances. Paul Crossley has been highly praised but I have always preferred Collard. He was young when he recorded the piano works and he had insight, and was in rapid communion with the music. His engagement was – and remains – wonderful to hear. Then there’s Thyssens-Valentin, where there are competing recordings, for a great Fauré player of an older generation.

Jonathan Woolf 




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