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:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, I really appreciated the combination of opinion and examples. I despair of ever affording the vinyl era issues of hers but this 17 cd set looks like a must have. As you say, what a pity there is not more chopin, but after that, so little room for criticism in her pianism.
Mark from Worcester UK

Anonymous said...

I discovered Meyer's playing through her extraordinary recording of Bach's Partita #2. She is an amazing musician. I read somewhere that her personal politics might have been a problem in her post-war career in France. I don't know if this is true. She plays with amazing insight and clarity.

Anonymous said...

I would think the fact that she was a woman was an immediate impediment to her gaining greater notice and acclaim. In fact, it seems quite obvious to me.