Debussy, Ravel: Images; Estampes; En blanc et noir; L’isle joyeuse; Lindaraja; Masques. Miroirs; Jeux d’eaux; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit; Le tombeau de Couperin

COMPOSERS: Debussy,Ravel
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Images; Estampes; En blanc et noir; L’isle joyeuse; Lindaraja; Masques. Miroirs; Jeux d’eaux; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit; Le tombeau de Couperin
PERFORMER: Jean-Philippe Collard, Michel Béroff (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CZS 5 72376 2 ADD/DDD
Taken as a group, these recordings demonstrate that basic features of a long-standing French school of piano playing were alive and well among youngish pianists in the Seventies when most of these recordings were made. Among other features, the French school is known for its jeu perlé, a feathery but fingery way of playing rapid filigree (hear the reprise of primary material in François-René Duchâble’s performance of Liszt’s E major Polonaise for a fine example). It has a characteristically bright sonority that stems from a technique emphasising clarity of touch and articulation, as well as from tendencies to balance toward the top of textures and to play at generous dynamic levels. There is also an expressive ideal that favours energetic detachment over subjective poeticising.

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As it turns out, although Duchâble delivers the Chopin Scherzos and a selection of Liszt favourites with something of a French accent, those performances achieve a generally satisfying blend of rumination and virtuosity. For my taste, Duchâble’s clipped octaves in Chopin’s Scherzo in C sharp minor prohibit the ideal torrential effect, and the surges of passion and despair in Liszt’s Funérailles go for naught in so unrelievedly forthright a performance. Alas, this latter approach predominates in the remainder of Duchâble’s programme: Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique becomes a tangle of jangling notes, and brittle brilliance kills off any latent charm in a Saint-Saëns group. The awkward but ambitious Dukas Sonata escapes with a little more expressive profile.

The French style offers a tangy alternative to Walter Gieseking’s much-emulated wispiness in Debussy and Ravel, and Jean-Philippe Collard dispenses requisite doses of Gallic point and clarity. In places, he adopts a rhythmic literalism that both anchors the music and etches detail precisely – he patiently unfolds the waves of colour in ‘Ondine’ from Gaspard de la nuit, and attains inexorable swing in the ‘Rigaudon’ from Le tombeau de Couperin while (thankfully) avoiding the overly sec articulation one might predict. Apart from a too cautious account (with Michel Béroff, who joins Collard in a handful of two-piano and four-hand works in this set) of Ma mère l’oye, which prompts one to concur with Ravel’s decision to orchestrate the suite, Collard’s is flavourful, direct Ravel playing; his Debussy likewise emerges brilliant and unusually tangible.

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The interest of the third set has less to do with Aldo Ciccolini’s respectably vivid playing than with the music of Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921), which mixes (and at times alternates between) unerring command of the diaphanous Debussy/Ravel style and the starker exoticism of Albéniz and Mussorgsky. Séverac paints the colours and activities of the French provinces attractively, even with fervent expression – reservoirs of evocative beauty await those who explore En Languedoc, Cerdaña, Le chant de la terre and some of the shorter works. Anyone interested in exploring or discovering worthwhile byways of the piano repertoire can be confidently urged to hear this set. David Breckbill