Charles Owen

Pianist Charles Owen talks to Helen Wallace about his latest disc of Fauré piano music

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Fauré's piano works have long been regarded as shadowy pieces but pianist Charles Owen has vowed to 'let the light in' to this colourful music. Helen Wallace talks to him about his new disc of Fauré Barcarolles, released on the Avie label – which was given four stars in our September issue – and what challenges the works pose.

You've previously recorded all of Fauré’s Nocturnes: how did he use the Barcarolle genre, what different challenges did these rarely-played pieces present to you?
The Barcarolles are beautiful, fascinating, and gloriously varied in concept. Fauré takes the lilting 6/8, 9/8 meters of Venetian gondolier songs as his point of departure and proceeds to create a wonderful tapestry of piano music. In many ways I found the flowing tempi of the Barcarolles less of a challenge to sustain than the more expansive world of the Nocturnes. Having said that there are still plenty of long melodic lines to span with swiftly moving accompaniments above and below. These pieces are less melancholy and introverted than the Nocturnes, more audience friendly.

You said you wanted to ‘let the light in’ to these works – why was it important to approach these increasingly mysterious pieces this way?
In general, the indicated dynamic markings led me to search for a bolder palette of tone colours. There are very few requests for pianissimo playing in the scores, especially in comparison with the piano music of Debussy and Ravel. Fauré sometimes complained that his works were performed ‘as if the curtains were closed’ and I feel it's important to let the passionate qualities inherent in his musical personality emerge from the shadows.

The Barcarolles span much of Fauré's composing life: how do they evolve through the years?
The Barcarolles and their companion Nocturnes take us on a 50 year journey through Fauré's life. The experience of listening to the complete set is rather like gazing into a revealing private diary. Fauré shares a similar confiding quality that also emerges in the works of Schumann. I particularly love the fifth Barcarolle where the ecstatic quality reminds me of Wagner's Tristan. If the earlier pieces glide elegantly on the surface, here we are most definitely plunged straight into the ocean! The dark heart of the series is formed from Nos 9-11 where bleak, sparse textures reveal an emotionally complicated world. Finally, the 12th and 13th recapture a childlike quality that fuses with the composer's esoteric late style.

Do you think the ambidextrous nature of Fauré himself is apparent in the way he wrote these works? Or was the presence of water in the cities of Lausanne, Lugano and Annecy more an influence?
Both aquatic and ambidextrous qualities are clearly in evidence. Fauré shows no mercy in his use of complex left hand textures leading to elaborate, intricate polyphony. We know he enjoyed holidaying close to lakeside settings and one can easily imagine the play of light and colour upon the watery surfaces of his harmonic sound world. I find a close visual comparison with the miraculous, shimmering brushstrokes of Renoir.

Charles Owen's disc of Fauré's Complete Barcarolles and Trois romances sans paroles is out on Avie now. He will also be appearing at the Leicester International Music Festival on 15, 16 & 18 Sept; at King's Place, London on 17 Sept and at the New Ross Piano Festival 23-25 September. 

Interview by Helen Wallace