Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Marvelous Marcelle Meyer

With the fascination I developed for Ravel's piano music after hearing Lipatti's recording of 'Alborada Del Gracioso', I was constantly on the search for great performances of this magnificent music. Ravel was a craftsman unlike any other, with piquant harmonies and crystaline structure weaving a complex tapestry. A chance reading of a short LP review in Gramophone magazine had a huge impact on this quest as well as introducing me to a pianist who has become a major part of my musical life.

I was on one of my Saturday jaunts in Montreal in the late 80s, searching through record stores for used LPs and magazine stores for whatever might seem interesting. I stood in a shop flipping through Gramophone and a short review jumped off the page at me. In it, the writer was talking about a 2-LP set by a French pianist called Marcelle Meyer, saying that her clear, direct approach seemed to be in alignment with how we knew Ravel's playing to be based on his piano rolls. While it was years later revealed that Ravel in fact did not play those rolls (most were played by Robert Casadesus), I was intrigued and decided to search out the records, which were in EMI's historical 'References' series. I had heard of Cortot, Lipatti, Schnabel, Fischer, Long, and the other pianists in this series - why was Meyer unknown to me?

Record distribution being what it was in Canada (and what it still is), the Ravel set was not available anywhere I looked, but a 2-disc set of Chabrier piano works played by Meyer was. I bought the set at a small fortune (about $30) and went home to listen. I had never heard music by Chabrier other than the famous orchestral work 'Espana', but this music was...different. I couldn't explain it but it was astounding. And the playing...Indeed, I could imagine Meyer's Ravel - her tone was crystal clear, with an unusually glassy-sounding instrument, and her phrasing was elastic. In particular, a short piece called Feuillet d'album struck me for its unusual fusion of delicacy and directness:

This was exceptional playing, and I looked far and wide for the Ravel records - nowhere to be found. With no internet back then and limited funds, bringing them in from overseas was not an option. Eventually a friend who worked at the CBC had the discs copied for me on cassette - and sure enough, the playing was the revelation I expected (even if 'Alborada' was still nowhere near Lipatti's), although the sound was regrettably more muffled than in the beautifully clear Chabrier recordings.

Then Gramophone carried an ad featuring a gift CD of Meyer playing all the Debussy Preludes for anyone buying 3 References CDs. I bit the bullet and phoned up some British suppliers and bought the CDs in order to get this gift, and what a gift it was. The story was that Meyer had prepared the Preludes under the watchful eye of the composer, and this late 1950s recording was somehow never released until this CD. (I recently found out that a test pressing had been found in the collection of her elder daughter - the record had never been released because Les Discophiles Francais went bankrupt before it could be issued.)

I was of course thrilled when in the 1990s 3 sets featuring a total of 15 CDs of her recordings were issued. Everything she played was a revelation.

And the more I found out about her, the more fascinated I was. She had been active in the creation of new music in Paris throughout the 1920s, personally working with artists like Satie, Stravinsky, and Ravel. Having participated in the premiere of Satie's Parade in 1917, she worked with Cocteau, Picasso, and Diaghilev; Debussy was present at the premiere and the story goes that he worked with her on his Preludes before he died the following year. She premiered La Valse with Ravel at the second piano...she was one of the four pianists to premiere Stravinsky's Les Noces...she was the muse of the six progressive composers known as Les Six - and a portrait entitled "Le Groupe des Six" features her in the center, despite her not having been an official member of the group. Picasso wanted to paint her (she didn't want to pose), she was photographed by Man Ray, and Chanel gave her her couture designs.

Even with all those first-rate connections, and with magnificent artistry, she never quite had the career one would imagine. Quite why is still a mystery to me. She did put motherhood in an important position, and she spent lots of time with her two daughters. Her second husband was a Mussolini supporter and there is talk that this impacted her career, but most of what has been written on the subject is exaggerated: stories she had to leave France after the War and that she wasn't invited back are patently false, as concert programs and radio broadcasts attest. It could be that her playing and unusual repertoire appealed to a smaller audience, and that the recordings she made for Discophiles Francais in the 40s and 50s reached fewer people than if she had continued recording for HMV. Whatever the reason, she was a pianist of exceptional musical and technical ability and an important figure in the musical world.

The French label Tahra released a CD of previously unpublished 'live' recordings of Meyer a few years ago, including a Chopin Barcarolle (she recorded no Chopin commercially, and it is a wonderful performance) and the most incredible performance of Falla's Nights In The Gardens Of Spain. Meyer studied with Ricardo Vines, a pianist close to Ravel, Debussy, and Falla - in fact, it was he who suggested the format that Nights would take. Meyer undoubtedly learned some secrets from Vines, as her approach is unlike any other I have heard: at times she seems almost to be playing two tempi at the same time, and her figurations bring out the Spanish element of the music with unparalleled colour and vibrancy.

And now, a single set of 17 CDs contains all of her known commercial recordings, including alternate takes and recordings from the 78 era of works she later recorded on LP. I thought I had already heard the most miraculous playing until I listened to her 1947 take of Debussy's Prelude "La terrasse des audiences au claire de lune" - her timing is incredibly spacious, each note lingering just the right amount of time, and her tone is luscious, together infusing this performance with an air of sacred mystery. It is miraculous to be able to listen to a performance by someone who knew the composer and these works so intimately:

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Unknown Side of Dinu Lipatti

One of the first pianists to truly capture me was Dinu Lipatti. My first encounter with his name was an odd one: I was looking through my high school record collection back in the 80s, and inside a sampler from the Angel label was mention of a 2-LP set entitled "Dinu Lipatti's Last Recital." I had never heard of him and the rather morbid name of the album caught my attention. I asked my high school teacher about him, and she said "Oh, he was a pianist's pianist."

I started looking for his records, and sure enough, his playing was captivating. My ears were not yet well trained to recognize what he was doing that made his playing so extraordinary, but there was a groundedness to his interpretations that held me. The story of his tragically young death in 1950 at the age of 33 from Leukemia (more accurately Hodgkin's Disease) was no less intriguing. His recordings of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin - those that I could get my hands on - demonstrated a level of spiritual certainty and calm mastery of pianism.

I was not prepared for what I heard when I found his one recording of a work by Ravel, however. I had never heard 'Alborada del Gracioso' before, but was stunned by the incredible virtuosity of Lipatti's interpretation, one that features a technical command that one would not have thought possible from any pianist, let alone one who was supposedly so ill. In particular, three glissandi near the end of the work left me speechless:

This was clearly not the anemic pianist that was written about in the liner notes to his recordings! He was achieving the impossible here: the dynamic control was phenomenal, in particular in the third glissando, where he goes from a raging fortissimo to a delicate pianissimo. And if you look at the score, these are not just straight glissandi: they are double-note glissandi played with the right hand. Most pianists play them at half the speed and without much dynamic variation. Lipatti was obviously, before his illness took its grasp, a stunning technician as well as a brilliant musician. I began to wonder if his illness led him to record works that didn't tax his strength and if his recorded output therefore perhaps did not fully represent his abilities, and I also wondered if concert recordings of a wider repertoire existed.

While I did discover that some concert performances had been found and released, I was still surprised by how relatively few there were; most also either duplicated works he recorded in the studio or composers whose works he had recorded. When I read in an essay by his wife that he had played the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata at the same broadcast session that had yielded an issued recording of the Enescu Third Sonata, I decided to take action - he had never made a commercial recording of Beethoven, and the Waldstein was my favourite - and I started writing to European archives and collectors to see what I could find.

Although I did not find the Waldstein (not yet, anyway), I did manage to locate a performance of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto and to get a tape by visiting the German radio station that had recorded the broadcast. This was an important find as Lipatti had not commercially recorded any 20th Century piano concertos other than his own Concertino In Classical Style. But more on the Bartok later. On the same 1990 trip to Europe, I visited the National Sound Archive (as it was then known) in London. I decided to search through the card catalogue not just under Lipatti's name but under the works he had performed in case something had been misfiled. And I hit the jackpot.

Under Liszt, I found a card indicating a performance of Lipatti playing Liszt's La Leggierezza to be found on tape 101W. Lipatti had recorded the work in 1946 but the master records had warped and it was never release; it turned out that this tape was not that recording, but rather a BBC broadcast performance recorded off the air by an amateur. I would eventually co-produce a 2-CD set that would include this performance with the cooperation of the BBC and the NSA.

Lipatti's interpretation here is spell-binding and shows his enormous command of pianistic technique and his ability to play in both a heroic and poetic manner. One of the aspects of his interpretation that I find so unique is how in the rapid runs in the clip below, he accelerates as he approaches the upper notes of the runs while also getting softer, giving the phrases an almost circular feeling:

In 1991 I visited a Swiss collector, one Dr. Marc Gertsch, who had obtained many items from Lipatti's widow's collection - concert programs, photos, personal items...and some recordings. Among these was a performance of the Liszt First Concerto, a work Lipatti never recorded commercially. He had recorded only the Schumann and Grieg Concertos, and his interpretations are magnificent and definitely bear witness to his incredible technique and musicianship; however, to hear Lipatti in such a virtuosic work as the Liszt E-Flat would give a very different impression of the artist. The acetate discs were worn and I did not get to hear the work at this time (Gertsch did, however, give me a monogrammed shirt of Lipatti's - a rather morbid gift which I nevertheless appreciated). Gertsch was eventually convinced to have the records remastered and then released by my colleague Werner Unger, then owner and director of the 'archiphon' label.

In this Liszt performance too, despite the poor sound quality, one can hear Lipatti demonstrate phenomenal technique applied musically, and that sense of 'how could it be done any other way?'. In this cadenza from the Allegro Animato, Lipatti brings a brooding, sinister atmosphere through rumbling bass effects and arched phrasing in the melody. One would expect all pianists to play it this way and yet I have never heard this section played with such an ominous atmosphere:

The sad story of Lipatti's illness and early death, and the limited repertoire he recorded commercially, have together painted an image of a pianist that is more restricted than he in fact was. As the recording clips above demonstrate, he was not only a musically grounded artist, he was a stunning virtuoso with tremendous strength and bravura put to the service of music.

I will be featuring more rare Lipatti performances on this blog in future posts. You can also read more about Lipatti on my website at

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

First Post

I'm looking forward to using this space to share thoughts, pictures, and recordings of great pianists. I'm just exploring how to get sound posted to this blog and will be getting started shortly. Stay tuned!