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The French Piano School
Marius-François Gaillard: Complete Debussy Recordings
Carmen Guilbert: Debussy, Fauré and Ravel
rec. 1928-1938
APR 6025 [73:10+76:23]

There’s a considerable amount of biographical material in Stephen Greenbank’s review of this two disc set release, so I won’t reprise much of it here. But this is the inaugural volume in a series of discs devoted to the French Piano School.

Marius-François Gaillard (1900-1973) was the first pianist to perform Debussy’s complete piano works in public in 1920 when the pianist was just 20. He gave several cycles of the then-known cycle during the next few years and APR helpfully reprints the 1922 cycle programmes. His Debussy recordings are the largest single body by a pianist before Gieseking’s. In time he gravitated to conducting and Caroline Rae’s extensive booklet essay goes into detail about the extent of his Debussy connections, principally via the composer’s widow, and about his subsequent career as a conductor.

It’s clear Gaillard was a performer of exemplary clarity and his recordings have a great deal to impart about early performances of Debussy. Jardins sous la pluie is both fleet and clear, conveyed at all times with athletic directness. The first Arabesque is in the best, admirable French tradition – even if the disc cuts off abruptly (a scratch or run-off groove maybe at fault) whilst there’s friskiness in the second. His exploration of harmonic clarity is invaluable in Reflets dans l’eau where he avoids gauche rubati and heavy pedaling. The Sarabande (Pour le piano No.2) is rather beautifully textured.

He is much better recorded by French Odéon in 1929 than Marcel Ciampi had been the previous year by French Columbia in La fille aux cheveux de lin. Here, Ciampi’s left hand figures are more emphatically delivered, whilst Gaillard sings more gently allowing himself just a touch more time with his rubato. Both men observe the metrical changes in La Cathédrale engloutie and again Gaillard is straighter interpretatively than Ciampi; his chording crisper, his use of the pedal lighter. Both men avoid Gieseking wash but in aesthetically differing ways and both have perceptive approaches to dynamics. Early performances of Debussy on the piano varied significantly and the idea that there was a single interpretative stance pre-Gieseking has never been true. What is true is that Gieseking’s presence on disc has served largely to obliterate, critically speaking, other valid – indeed arguably more valid - streams of interpretation. Take George Copeland, a much older player than Gaillard, who was a profound interpreter of French music. Like Ciampi he is more incursive and characterful, in many ways, than Gaillard who is far more direct and less nuanced than the American in La puerta del Vino. Copeland also gets the Ragtime oddities of General Lavine with grater insouciance than the more measured, plainer Gaillard. His sonorities are also the more striking in Ondine. It’s also intriguing to hear the American’s greater lightness in the Menuet from Bergamasque No.2. It’s not always the case that Gaillard is nonpareil in this context, as the excellent booklet notes seem to suggest. His reading of Masques though is trenchant but clear, lightly accented and full of rhythmic drive.

Gaillard’s Debussy recordings were recorded over a two-and-a-half-year span; we are fortunate that he was able to set down such a large swathe of his repertory. The recordings are sequenced in chronological order starting with March 1928 and ending in October 1930 and so pieces from the same set – say the Preludes and Estampes - will be found scattered dependent on the date of recording.

Carmen Guilbert’s 1931-38 discs were made for Pathé. Her French repertoire on disc was Debussy, Fauré and Ravel but she also recorded several pieces by Billy Mayerl and it’s known that Ravel owned some of these. Despite her relative obscurity, she emerges well in this selection, even with a rather surfacey Pathé sound – the Gaillard Odéons were probably also noisy too (at least my French Odéons are) – but the engineering has tamed that. She plays with poise and lightness though rather lacks her compatriot Gaillard’s sheer clarity, and is rather quicker than he in the Sarabande, though perhaps a little more harmonically overt. Her Fauré is attractive; the Nocturne No.3 is less thoughtfully voiced than Germain Thyssens-Valentin and the Theme and Variations similarly – Guilbert’s is an altogether lighter approach – but she clearly doesn’t deserve to occupy any kind of lacuna in French pianism on disc in the interwar period. She is a fresh, lithe interpreter though clearly a lesser one than Gaillard.

It may well be the case that APR conceived of this twofer and the series some time ago but in fact their claim that this is the first reissue of Gaillard’s recordings is not quite correct. APR was beaten to it by Arbiter whose 2-CD release [Arbiter 166] was issued some months before, though APR was presumably unaware of this when they were finalizing their documentation. Arbiter’s transfers are much less interventionist than APR’s and the rest of the programme differs, Arbiter including all Gaillard’s 78s and adding pieces played by Irén Marik and John Ranck, Fourneau, Horszowski and Debussy himself with Mary Garden.

Jonathan Woolf
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

CD 1
Marius-François Gaillard (Odéon recordings 1928-1930)
1. Jardins sous la pluie (Estampes, No. 3)
2. Rêverie
3-4. Deux Arabesques
5. Reflets dans l’eau (Images, Set I, No. 1)
6. La soirée dans Grenade (Estampes, No. 2)
7. La Cathédrale engloutie (Preludes, Book I, No. 10)
8. Ballade
9-11. Pour le piano
12-15. Preludes, Book 1 – Danseuses de Delphes, La fille aux cheveux de lin, La serenade interrompue, Minstrels
16. Mazurka
17. La plus que lent
18-21. Preludes, Book 2 – La Puerta del Vino, General Lavine – exentric, Ondine, Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C.

CD 2
1. Masques
2. Pagodes (Estampes, No 1)
3. Valse romantique
4-6. Suite Bergamasque – Prélude, Menuet, Clair de lune
Carmen Guilbert (Pathé recordings 1930-1938)
7. Minstrels (Preludes, Book I, No. 12)
8. Bruyères (Preludes, Book II, No. 5)
9-10. Pour le piano – Sarabande, Toccata
Gabriel FAURÉ
11. Impromptu No. 2 in F minor, Op. 31
12. Barcarolle No. 6 in E flat major, Op. 70
13. Nocturne No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 33, No 3
14. Nocturne No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 63
15. Thème et variations, Op. 73
16. Alborada del gracioso (No. 4 from Miroirs)

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