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Marcel Ciampi (piano)
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1809-1847)
Scherzo No. 2, op. 31 [7:14]
Polonaise No. 2, op. 26 no. 2 [5:28]
Waltz No. 9, op.69 no. 1 "Valse de l’Adieu" [5:02]
Nocturne No. 13, op. 48 no.1 [7:14]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
La Chasse, Étude, d’après Paganini, no. 5 [3:09]
Légende de Saint François de Paule marchant sur les flots [8:05]
Claude DEBUSSY (1860-1918)
Préludes pour piano: Danseuses de Delphes (Livre I, n° 3) [2:51]: Le Vent dans la plaine (Livre I, n° 3) [1:57]: Les Collines d’Anacapri (Livre I, n° 5) [2:59]:La Fille aux cheveux de lin (Livre I, n° 8) [2:08]: La Sérénade interrompue (Livre I, n° 9) [2:20]: La Cathédrale engloutie (Livre I, n° 10) [5:20]: La Danse de Puck (Livre I, n° 11) [2:33]: Minstrels (Livre I, n° 12) [2:07]: Feux d’artifice (Livre II, n° 12) [3:55]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet (1878-79) [37:12]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor Op. 45 (1886-87) [24:25]
Capet Quartet (Franck)
Yvonne Astruc (violin) (Grieg)
rec. 1928-31, Paris
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR797-98 [61:31 + 61:38]

Marcel Ciampi’s discography is small but perfectly formed. Forgotten Records has already released his post-war 1952 Chopin Polonaises recordings, and in 1956 he set down Mozart’s A major sonata, K331 for Pathé Marconi - an LP that marked the two hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. But other than that, all there is of Ciampi on disc is a sequence of 78s made for Columbia in Paris between 1928 and 1931.
These two CDs do not quite corral them all. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.11, made at his last session, is not here, and neither is Ciampi’s own Etude in B minor, but a look at the highly useful discography, which is printed in the French/English booklet (a rarity for Forgotten Records), reveals how much else is here.
Ciampi (1891-1980), pianist and teacher, performed in public between 1909 and 1958, and taught for half a century between 1930 and 1980. He was a student of Diemer at the Paris Conservatoire and later Ciampi had a raft of distinguished pupils – Loriod, Ousset and three Menuhins (Hephzibah, Jeremy and Yaltah) amongst many others. The booklet biography is revealing of his affiliations and repertoire and makes for interesting reading, as do the extensive footnotes which are actually even longer than the notes they serve to amplify.
There are five paragraphs to Ciampi’s pre-war legacy on disc; Chopin, a brief flirtation with Liszt, Debussy’s Preludes, the Franck Piano Quintet, and the Grieg Violin Sonata No.3. There are four Chopin pieces to be heard here. The Scherzo has a winningly elastic central panel where Ciampi takes things almost to the metrical limit, but vests it all with iridescent character. The Polonaise is suitably playful, once again full of rich tone and strong contrasts between sections (a Ciampi speciality). The Waltz is unusually slow but is flecked with the deftest of rubati, and the Nocturne beautifully textured at a slow basic tempo. His two Liszt performances feed on the abrupt conjunction of a lyric fleet La Chasse, and a powerfully modulated Légende de Saint François de Paule marchant sur les flots with a very slightly messy ending.
His Debussy sequence consists of eight pieces from the Préludes Book I and a single piece from Book II. Each is richly characterised but never self-consciously so. Puck is wonderfully droll and the Girl with the Flaxen Hair warmly but sensitively outlined. Each is a character study, all persuasively presented by a master of the French repertoire whose sense of colour and line are always at the music’s service. He doesn’t indulge his Debussy as much as he does Chopin.
He was teamed with the august Capet Quartet for the Franck Piano Quintet in October 1928. He is on splendid form, technically and expressively. This is one of the great performances of the work, eclipsing in my view the Cortot/International Quartet recording and standing at an entirely discrete stylistic remove from later traversals, even from those securely in the French tradition (such as Descaves and the Bouillon Quartet or that by the Chailley-Richez Quintet) or by, say, Schmitz and the Roth Quartet from outside that immediate school. I daresay many readers will not have heard the Capet and will suffer the experience of Yehudi Menuhin who, when he first heard them in Paris, apparently – so he says – ran screaming from the hall appalled by their senza vibrato aesthetic. It is nevertheless enormously enriching to hear them – they were at the furthermost point from the Lener Quartet at the time, I suppose, one blanched white, the other saturated in warmth. The spectral intimacies of the work have seldom sounded so full of despair, Capet’s venerable austerity so magnificent. By one of those remarkable coincidences, across the Channel a week later English Columbia recorded the London String Quartet in their great recording of Franck’s String Quartet – like this Capet/Ciampi one of the greatest ever made.
It’s appropriate that Ciampi and Yvonne Astruc should have joined together for Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata because they married in 1920. Astruc is less well known, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, though she did make an early foray to Queen’s Hall when Henry Wood brought her over. She was born in 1889. As a ranking player in the French school she falls chronologically between Thibaud and Francescatti but, as her discs display, hers was an entirely different temperament from the sensuous elegance of the former or the scintillating brio of the latter.

If we know Astruc at all it’s through her recording of Milhaud’s Concerto de printemps – a composer-conducted set from 1935. And in fact her discography is small. She did record another major concerto; the Bach in A, with an unnamed band conducted by Bret but it’s hardly received much currency in the intervening seventy years or so. Titbits saw out the rest – the usual fiddle fancier’s sweetmeats of Gluck, Kreisler, Nardini and Novacek. Astruc discloses an equable, unruffled but essentially small-scale personality in the Grieg Sonata. Ciampi is inclined to be a little hard rhythmically from time to time and Astruc’s precise but rather small tone, although very nicely equalized in the best French string tradition, is not overburdened with opulent projection. Her trills are quite slow as well. Her expressive and athletic portamenti in the Romanza are enticing and even if Ciampi is inclined to over-pedal, her quite slow vibrato isn’t one that requires dramatic, theatrical projection. She doesn’t go in for evocative or lubricious finger position changes, preferring a more discreet musicality, a cool one, more Zimbalist than Seidel, and she abjures glistening emotiveness at all times. There can be a lack of tone colour in her playing – it’s all a bit one-dimensional. In the finale she again prefers direct lyricism to abandoned romanticism.

The Grieg was released on Malibran CDRG115 coupled with the Franck Quintet, and a Debussy Prélude, and some pieces from Astruc, but I would avoid it. It has been noise-suppressed to death and has no sense of colour. All the Capet recordings were reissued in Japan years ago on TOCE 6169-74 in a box set; their Franck sounds a bit watery after FR’s forward transfer. I’ve not heard Opus Kura’s Capet discs but suspect they’re more comparable with FR’s. I have heard Ward Marston’s transfer of many Ciampi solo 78s on the collectors-only non-commercial ‘Lagniappe’ disc that he releases annually, and can say that he has attended to the surface noise and bass-heavy aspects of the Paris recordings well. Most other transfers do sound bass-heavy, including FR’s very truthful work.

However, given the unavailability of Marston’s transfers, Forgotten Records’ foray into the world of shellac – unusual for them - proves remarkably successful. No one who cares about French pianism can afford to do without Ciampi’s small but glorious recorded legacy.

Jonathan Woolf