The two concertos were recorded in 1960 and the recording of Gaspard de
la nuit dates back to 1967. The refurbishments are first class so that
every little detail is as sharp as a gnat's kneecap. The pp writing for harp
and woodwinds in the first movement, for instance, is as clear as one could
wish for and the strands of Ravel's often complex textures are satisfyingly
As Bryce Morrison says in his most interesting CD notes, Samson François
was "a mercurial genius...(who) believed essentially in a frisson and mood
of the moment that made his performances wildly unpredictable." Conductors
must have approached the concert platform with trepidation whenever they
shared it with this erratic genius. You feel this glorious
by-the-seat-of-the-pants spontaneity in this celebrated recording. The
outer movements of the G-Major Concerto, here, are vibrant and thrilling.
François's reading gives an exciting feeling of inspired improvisation;
skittish, restless, dynamic. In the finale he is splendidly imprecise going
for a steep crescendo, for instance, instead of a marked fortissimo descent,
and he races dangerously ahead of Cluytens but without risking the structure,
balance or feel of the whole. Even though he nicely balances the statement
of the lovely poignant dreamy theme of the solo opening of the Adagio
assai central movement in the one hand with the rather consolatory
accompaniment in the other, I felt disappointed with his casual, rather detached
manner. But then later in the same movement, he impresses with beautifully
moulded runs beneath the cor anglais and then the other wind instruments
as they reiterate the theme. Here is the delicacy of sun-glittered raindrops
in the wake of an April shower.
In the Concerto for the left hand, he enters like a tiger and in the quieter
sections, is as tender as a lamb (I just wish he had been this expressive
in the slow movement of the other concerto) only to bound back all ablaze.
Again as Bryce observes, "... his performance keeps everyone on the qui vive.
Nothing is consciously worked...". Cluytens conjures up awe-inspiring,
vividly-coloured accompaniments, coaxing vibrant, virtuoso performances from
every section of the French orchestra. You are carried away by their spicy
playing from the wild and dangerous to the limpid and pellucid. Your attention
is gripped and held always. The jazz elements, particularly strong in the
G-Major concerto are played with a witty insouciance and insolence. This
is a strong, proud, haughty left hand concerto accompaniment; the dark opening
pages are as disturbing as they are arresting. The toy-soldier like march
in the middle treads with just the right mixture of hauteur and irony and
at the finale the orchestra leaves with a bang.
Gaspard de la nuit is, of course, a set of three atmospheric pieces
for solo piano. François's Ondine suggests intertwining ripples on
sun-speckled water but with dark and possibly dangerous undercurrents. He
steers Le gibet along in a certain detachment through the sinister,
desolate, hope-abandoned staccato landscape and his Scarbo seems to
be a sly, mischievous and horribly malevolent hobgoblin, not one to turn
one's back on judging from François's creepy portrait.