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Monique Haas - Les Enregistrements Erato
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
CD 1 [73:17]
Danse bohémienne [01:53]
2 Arabesques [07:24]
Rêverie [04:23]
Ballade (Ballade slave) [05:55]
Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) [05:36]
Valse romantique [03:04]
Nocturne [06:36]
Mazurka [02:52]
Suite bergamasque [18:25]
Pour le piano [14:14]
Hommage à Haydn [02:19]
CD 2 [74:05]
Images – Série I [16:09]
Images – Série II [13:27]
Préludes – Livre I [41:04]
Le Petit Nègre [01:46]
CD 3 [68:51]
Préludes – Livre II [38:11]
Estampes [13:59]
Children’s Corner [15:11]
CD 4 [69:33]
Etudes [45:17]
L’Isle joyeuse [05:30]
D’un cahier d’esquisses [04:55]
Masques [04:53]
La Plus que lente [03:59]
Berceuse héroïque [03:57]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
CD 5 [73:22]
Miroirs [31:07]
Jeux d’eau [05:34]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [07:06]
Menuet antique [06:24]
Prélude [01:42]
A la manière de … Chabrier [01:59]
A la manière de … Borodine [01:49]
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn [02:04]
Ma Mère l’Oye [14:38]*
CD 6 [72:22]
Le Tombeau de Couperin [22:12]
Gaspard de la Nuit [21:44]
Sonatine [11:52]
Valses nobles et sentimentales [15:49]
Monique Haas (piano)
item marked* with Ina Marika (piano)
rec. January, April and July 1968, Eglise Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris (Ravel), 1972 (Debussy)
ERATO 2564 69967-2 [6 CDs : 73:17 + 74:05 + 68:51 +  69:33 + 73:22 + 72:22]

 


These 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 French Impressionists.

Yet 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”.

As 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”.

Debussy

I 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 actually wanted.

While 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.

Haas 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.

As 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”.

On 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 manner.

Or 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.

By 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 …

Ravel 

Haas’s 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.

The 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”.

“Jeux 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.

So 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.

“Le 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.

On 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.

The 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.

Since you have to take all or nothing, where does this leave us?

I’ve 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.

Connoisseurs 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.

A Provocative Afterthought 

This 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 mind.

We’re 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.

That’s 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.

Now, only about ten per cent of me really thinks this. The other ninety per cent is just responding to provocation with provocation.

But:

  1. If 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.
  2. I 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 retired.
  3. It 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.

All the same, it would be interesting if anyone with longish memories or inside information can say:

  1. Whether Haas did in fact tend to probe deeply into the music one day and skate blandly over the surface of it the next.
  2. What 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.
  3. If any records exist of Ina Marika playing this repertoire, or indeed, if anybody knows anything about her.

One 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.

And don’t take this “provocative afterthought” too seriously!

Christopher Howell 

 

 

 


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