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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) Complete Piano Music - Volume 4
Jean-Claude Pennetier (piano)
rec. 2017, L’Église Luthérienne de Bon Secours, Paris MIRAREMIR356 [65:00]
This is the final volume of Jean-Claude Pennetier’s survey of Fauré's complete piano music, a series that Mirare have been drip-feeding to collectors over the past decade. While I have not (as yet) sampled the delights of the first three discs, I did note that reviews for these tended to be respectful rather than ecstatic. Now in his 75th year, Pennetier has built up a modest discography across a number of labels. His particular enthusiasms seem to involve the standard classical and romantic chamber repertoire, as well as Debussy and contemporary music. He has a parallel, and no doubt overlapping career; since 2004 (when he was ordained), he has been active as a priest within the Orthodox church in France- indeed he is currently the rector of the parish of Chartres (as an aside, my colleague Stephen Barber recently recommended a live 1976 recording by Pennetier’s slightly younger compatriot Jean-Rodolphe Kars, of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus; largely driven by the spirituality of Messiaen’s music, Kars was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1981 and turned his back on professional music-making for good. Happily for us, Pennetier has not made the same sacrifice).
The present disc includes Fauré's later Barcarolles, Nocturnes and the last pair of Impromptus; on the basis of the mixed reviews I’d seen of the previous instalments, I didn’t have especially high expectations when I put this disc on late at night and armed myself with the laptop (and a glass of Pinot Grigio) to make some listening notes. I ended up just listening and writing nothing. I found this disc to be an utterly absorbing account of these endlessly fascinating pieces. It benefits from a natural, clear recording. I was hooked within thirty seconds of the opening bars of the D minor Barcarolle and spent the next 65 minutes completely at the mercy of Fauré's elusive wiles. This is intimate, understated playing of music that thrives on those qualities. It is obvious that this repertoire has been percolating under Pannetier’s skin for a lifetime. His subtle, elegant playing allows the notes to speak for themselves.
In the last two decades of Fauré’s long life, his hearing started to go and these mysterious jewels (together with some of the later songs and the extended but equally enigmatic chamber masterpieces) seem to me to be the legacy of an artist who was determined to pursue a completely novel path entirely on his own terms, at the same time as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy et al. In my view these pieces are every bit as radical as those by the ‘pioneers’ I have identified. The late Barcarolles and Nocturnes convince in the sense that they do not draw attention to themselves with evocative titles or stylistic gimmickry. They have no need. I don’t pretend to have a consummate understanding of the composer’s technical strategies in putting these pieces together, still less of the complex and unpredictable modulations and harmonic and rhythmic shifts that abound within them. All I can say is that I’ve heard a multitude of different accounts over the years and long since concluded there is no right or wrong way to play them. This is music to feel rather than to hear – one develops a personal taste, an intuition; I suspect these characteristics (as opposed to brilliant technique, for example) ultimately inform the interpretative approaches of my favourite Fauré interpreters such as Paul Crossley, Kun Woo-Paik and Jean Doyen. ‘Less is more’ are the watchwords. This Pennetier disc is the best new Fauré piano album I have heard since Daniel Grimwood’s superbly played and recorded account of the complete Nocturnes on the Edition Peters label (EPS 001-issued in 2014).
Notwithstanding my hypothesis that Fauré’s late works amount to contemporary music, Rodolphe Bruneau-Boulmier’s note accompanying this issue begins with a lovely quotation from the immortal Marguerite Long which brings one down to earth with a bump:
”Fauré’s (piano) oeuvre may be summed up in a few chapters. Music of the water: there we have the thirteen Barcarolles; Music of the night: the thirteen Nocturnes. Music of fantasy: in this category are the four Valses-Caprices, the five Impromptus, the Ballade and Dolly. Music of the intellect: this comprises the Thème et Variations and the occasional preludes or fugues scattered through his oeuvre”
If I were going to pick an argument with anyone about Fauré, Long would be the last person I’d choose. Bruneau-Boulmier elaborates on Long’s thoughts by rejecting the idea of defining the composer’s music by the stage of his career at which it emerged, and concentrates instead on the quality of each piece, as he worked with all these different piano forms throughout his long career. In this regard, Pennetier is unusually successful in discriminating between the characteristic limpidity of the Barcarolles and the eternal, often elegiac, mystery of the Nocturnes; but in so doing, in his accounts of these late works he actually does illuminate the essential ‘otherness’ of this music, which for me is its enduring fascination – each encounter yields new insights and thoughts. Notable examples of this on the present disc include the almost disconnected projection of tolling bells in the eleventh Nocturne; they almost seem to be part of another piece, as do the strange dissonances at its conclusion. The repetitions at the outset of the tenth Barcarolle sound almost minimalistic, whereas its final chord lends it a feeling of incompleteness (I wish the Mirare engineers had left longer gaps between the tracks). At times, the eleventh Barcarolle here sounds polytonal – yet Pennetier’s playing is wonderfully natural and unpretentious. The following twelfth Barcarolle then has a disarmingly simple, rippling quality which is altogether delightful before odd, seemingly disembodied notes intermittently intervene.
Pennetier’s readings throughout this issue are unfailingly fresh, perceptive and deeply affectionate. However, it is sobering indeed to look at the track list below simply to remind oneself of the dates these pieces were published, and furthermore to imagine them in their proper musico-historical context. Pennetier manages to project their modernity as well as their essential tenderness, and he does so with an understated humility which has certainly encouraged this reviewer to investigate his three previous Fauré discs.
Barcarolle No. 7 in D minor Op. 90 (1905) [3:42]
Impromptu No. 4 in D flat major Op. 91 (1906) [5:23]
Barcarolle No. 8 in D flat major Op. 96 (1906) [4:14]
Nocturne No. 9 in B minor, Op. 97 (1908) [4:08]
Nocturne No. 10 in E minor, Op. 99 (1908) [5:09]
Barcarolle No. 9 in A minor Op. 101 (1909) [4:34]
Impromptu No. 5 in F sharp minor Op. 102 (1909) [2:25]
Nocturne No. 11 in F sharp minor, Op. 104 No. 1 (1913) [4:34]
Barcarolle No. 10 in A minor Op. 104 No. 2 (1913) [3:26]
Barcarolle No. 11 in G minor Op. 105 (1913) [5:03]
Barcarolle No. 12 in E flat major Op. 106 (1915) [3:46]
Nocturne No. 12 in E minor, Op. 107 (1915) [6:28]
Barcarolle No. 13 in C major Op. 116 (1921) [4:23]
Nocturne No. 13 in B minor, Op. 119 (1921) [8:07]