Gustave SAMAZEUILH (1877-1967)
Complete Piano Works
Nocturne (1938) [9:58]
Piano Suite in G (1902, rev 1911) [16:24]
Chanson à ma poupée (c.1904) [2:43]
Naïades au soir (1910) [6:25]
Trois Petites Inventions (c.1904) [5:00]
Esquisses (1944) [10:15]
Évocation (1947) [3:04]
Le Chant de la Mer (1918-19) [20:25]
Olivier Chauzu (piano)
rec. 2014, Recital Studio B, Tihange, Belgium
GRAND PIANO GP669 [74:09]

I have long prided myself on being an enthusiast of lesser-known composers, especially in the field of British music, but also of other nationalities. I had never heard of Gustave Samazeuilh before receiving this CD: it is surely a sin of omission that many will join me in confessing. After hearing this music I imagine that listeners will be amazed that such musical talent and invention can have been largely lost to the recital room. Contrariwise, do not run away with the idea that he is a ‘new’ rival to Debussy or Ravel, but he is certainly a musical force to be reckoned with.

I have not heard the CD issued in 2003 of Samazeuilh’s piano music played by Stéphane Lemelin (Atma Classique ACD22210). It covers the same works with the exception of the Nocturne and the Trois Petites Inventions and was reviewed on MusicWeb International in April 2008.

Three biographical notes about the composer will help the listener. Firstly, Gustave Samazeuilh, born in Bordeaux in 1877, was destined for a career in law, but turned to music. He studied with Ernest Chausson and Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum de Paris and subsequently with Paul Dukas. Secondly, Samazeuilh became lifelong friends with Maurice Ravel and was influenced by his music. However, the most important impact was Claude Debussy. Thirdly, Samazeuilh’s catalogue of music is not extensive. Grove notes some half-dozen orchestral works, a good quantity of chamber music for a variety of instruments, a number of songs and the present collection of piano works. One interesting item mentioned is a Piano Sonata composed in 1902 which is not featured in the present ‘complete’ piano works. One can only assume it has not survived. There are also a number of transcriptions for piano of other composers’ music.

Stylistically, Samazeuilh’s music owes much to the impressionists, especially Debussy. Yet, there is sometimes something a little more neo-classical in these pages as well as backward glances to his teachers.

The earliest work — they are not presented in chronological order on this CD — is the Suite in G which was composed in 1902 and subsequently revised in 1911. The liner-notes suggest that it was inspired by the ‘rediscovery of Classical French composers’. The Suite is in six movements which use ‘antique’ titles such as ‘Sarabande’, ‘Forlane’ and ‘Musette’. Nevertheless, this is no pastiche of Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Rameau or anyone else. It is a re-creation of the form and style in the same manner as Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin or even Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.

‘Chanson à ma poupée’ was written in 1904 as part of a collaborative effort of students at the Schola Cantorum entitled Album pour enfants petits et grands. Samazeuilh’s contribution is made up of five linked sections including a song, a short waltz and a calm epilogue. It is a lovely reflective little piece that is certainly not easy to play or interpret.

The same year saw the Bachian Three Inventions which apparently took the elder composer’s Invention in A minor BWV 784 as its stimulus. The pieces feature writing in two, three and four parts. Bach is not the only inspiration: César Franck and Debussy are never too far away.
Naïades au soir (Naiads at nightfall) is probably the first of Samazeuilh’s impressionistic works. It was composed in 1910. The liner-notes point out that in spite of the influence of Debussy, the music ‘with its constant metre and supple barcarolle rhythm is still more linear than impressionistic …’ Samazeuilh was later to claim that the theme from this work had been ‘lifted’ by Ravel for representing the nymphs in his ballet score Daphnis et Chloé. Naïades au soir was orchestrated by the composer in 1925.

The master-work on this new CD is Le Chant de la Mer (1918-19). This massive three-movement work is surely one of the most undervalued pieces of twentieth century piano music. I am indebted to the liner-notes for my understanding of this work. There is also a section in Alfred Cortot’s major study of French piano music which is available (in French) online. The Chant is highly structured and follows a ‘well-thought out temporal and symbolic scheme’. I imagine that listeners will immediately think of Claude Debussy’s orchestral suite La Mer and wonder if Samazeuilh has created a piano companion for this work. The actual progenitors of this music are once again Ernest Chausson and Vincent d’Indy. The opening Prelude is slow and majestic as a peaceful ocean ought to be and features ‘static layers of sound’. It is possibly more MacDowell than Debussy. The ‘Clair du lune au large’ can be perceived as an allegory of human passions expressed in terms of the movement of the tides with ‘moonlight on the waves’. The composer has not been blind to Debussy’s achievement in giving an impressionistic picture of the sea, and there are certainly a number of nods to La Mer, especially in the final movement, ‘Tempête et lever du jour sur les flots’ which musically paints ‘tempest and daybreak on the waves’. Here Samazeuilh makes use of ‘rapid flourishes, ostinatos and tremolos, chromatic broken-chord ascents and descents, and alternating black-and-white key glissandos …’. It is also clear to see the pianism of Liszt in this movement.

The three movements, in order, were dedicated to Francis Planté, Marguerite Long and Alfred Cortot respectively.

The Nocturne (1938), which here receives its premiere recording, is a master-class in impressionistic music. Here are whole tone scales, exotic harmonies and wide-variety of pianistic devices and timbres creating an ‘impression’ of ‘night’. Yet there is no sense of vagueness here: the structure of this work seems to hark back to d’Indy and Chausson. It was a piano transcription of Samazeuilh’s orchestral tone-poem (Nuit) which had been composed in 1924. The score is prefaced by a poem by Henri de Régnier, ‘… luminous and secret night’ in which ‘time stands still and passions are freely revealed’.

The Quatre Esquisses (1944) are delightful miniatures. Whether they are alluding to an ‘Underwater Cathedral’ (Dédicace), portraying a will o’ the wisp firefly (Luciole), parodying Spanish guitar playing (Sérénade, for left hand only), or ‘recalling the past’ in the ‘Souvenir’ (right hand alone) these are well-constructed and satisfying numbers.

Originally conceived for violin and piano, the Évocation (1947) was dedicated to the Romanian composer George Enescu. They admired each other’s music. It is a deeply moving piece that sounds more complex and massive that its short duration would initially suggest.

Olivier Chauzu’s repertoire ranges from music by Bach and Scarlatti to Mompou and Stockhausen. He has made extensive tours of the world playing in the recital room and the concert hall. His recording of Isaac Albeniz’s Iberia gained a Diapason d’Or in 2007. Other CDs include music by Schumann, Beethoven and Debussy. Chauzu studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris during the early nineteen-eighties and over the following few years gained many prizes and awards. His playing on this present CD is sensitive and presents a huge range of musical colour in Gustave Samazeuilh’s largely impressionistic, but often romantic, piano works.

The liner-notes by Gérald Hugon (translated by Susannah Howe) give an excellent introduction to this ‘forgotten’ composer. There are good biographical notes followed by a detailed discussion of each work. I would not be surprised if this is the most comprehensive study of Samazeuilh currently available in print or online.

This is altogether a must-have CD for all enthusiasts of French piano music in general and impressionistic music in particular. I enjoyed every bar of music on this disc: the works and the playing are excellent throughout and demand out attention and respect.

John France

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