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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphonic Études [18:41]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka in D flat major, Op. 30, No. 3 [3:01]
Mazurka in F minor, Op. 63, No. 2 [1:41]
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47 [7:07]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor, HS 178 [31:28]
Reminicences of Don Juan, HS 418 [16:01]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Étude No. 9 in G flat major, Op. 25 [1:06]
Samson François (piano)
rec. live 19 January 1965, Salle Pleyel, Paris
MELOCLASSIC MC1045 [79:18]

Samson François (1924-1970) was born in Frankfurt, where his father worked at the French consulate. Early on in his life, he came to the attention of Alfred Cortot, at whose instigation he travelled to Paris to study with Yvonne Lefébure at the École Normale de Musique. Later he attended the Paris Conservatoire to study piano with Marguerite Long and harmony with Nadia Boulanger.

François’s bohemian lifestyle consisted of late nights, partying, chain-smoking and alcohol. The result of his excesses was that he died prematurely. His personal life certainly spilled out into his professional career. His music-making, built on a fabulous technique, was exciting, exuberant, volatile, unpredictable and reliant on risk-taking. Sometimes it could be heedless and tousled. Imperfections did not concern him that much, and in this respect he took a similar view to Alfred Cortot. It is almost ironic that he underwent a short period of study with Cortot, which was soon abandoned. Apparently, the master could not rein him in. There was a time when I could not bear Samson François’s playing but, over the years, I have gradually warmed to much of it.

This highly individual approach, where he wants to forcefully stamp his personality onto the music he is performing, and to distinguish himself from the pack, is most noticeable in Chopin’s Mazurka in D flat, Op. 30 No. 3. The interpretation is not for the faint-hearted. Marred by an excessively slow tempo, this mannered reading is afflicted by tortuous rubato and hesitant flow. Mazurka Op. 63 No. 2 which follows suffers, but to lesser extent, from slight tempo changes along the way.

On a more positive note, Schumann’s Symphonic Études Op. 13 are played with great musicality and confidence. In the ninth study, François makes a starling contrast between the passionate thrust of the Florestan section and the dreamy longings of Eusebius. In the eleventh, he injects fervour and intensity into the music.

The highlight of this recital for me is the Liszt Sonata. The reading in bold, courageous, passionate and intense, yet bejewelled with poetic lustre. With an intelligent command of structure and architecture, François knows how to integrate the different sections into one overarching sonata-form movement. This work alone justifies the price of the disc. It is simply wonderful.

The recital, a live recording from the Salle Pleyel, is dated 19 January 1965. The audio quality is first-rate, with air and resonance around the piano. It makes for a pleasing listen. Audience presence is registered by the retained applause. There is also a radio announcement at the end in French.

Stephen Greenbank

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