April 04, 2013

Biography

‘Samson de la nuit’ was the affectionate epithet given to this pianist who seemed never to sleep and who was almost as famous for spending his early morning hours in Parisian jazz clubs as he was for playing Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Like the Biblical Samson, Samson François wore his hair long – it often hung in front of his eyes as he played – and like the character Scarbo in Gaspard, he could be mischievous and evasive. A man of contrasts, he was in many ways the epitome of what one thought a romantic pianist should be – confident, dashing, poetic, moody, passionate, tender and temperamental. Today, more than 40 years after his premature death, a new generation of listeners has come to appreciate the qualities that made him one of the great pianists of the 20th century.

Strong contrasts played a part in François’s life, long before he was famous. His father was a French Catholic, his mother (née Luthringhauser) an Alsatian Protestant. Born in 1924 in Frankfurt am Main, where his father was in the diplomatic service, he began piano lessons at the age of four. The family then moved to Belgrade, where François studied at the conservatoire and won a prize at the age of seven. Four years later he graduated with a first prize from the Nice Conservatoire, performing Liszt’s Eleventh Hungarian Rhapsody. Around this same time he had the chance to play for Alfred Cortot, the most renowned pianist in France, who immediately accepted him into his class at the École Normale in Paris. There he also studied with Cortot’s assistant, the remarkable pedagogue Yvonne Lefébure.

In 1937, barely thirteen, he graduated with a licence de concert and the following autumn successfully auditioned at the Paris Conservatoire with Liszt’s ‘Don Juan’ Fantasy. He was accepted into the class of Marguerite Long, the grande dame of French pianists and a strict disciplinarian. She recognised his immense gifts but had no patience with his unruly behaviour. He was said to have been the only student she ever struck – and years later he told her ‘What an honour, Madame, to have been the only one!’

In 1941 François made his Paris debut playing Liszt’s First Concerto with the Lamoureux Orchestra and two years later won first prize in the Marguerite Long–Jacques Thibaud Competition. In 1945 he played four concertos on one programme in Paris: the Prokofiev Third, the Liszt First, the Ravel G major, and the Schumann. His acclaimed American debut came in 1947, when he played Prokofiev’s Fifth Concerto in New York with Leonard Bernstein conducting. In the same year he made his first recording, a now-legendary account of Ravel’s Scarbo. During the 1950s he made extensive and acclaimed tours throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan; and in 1956 he was the first French musician to be invited to play in the Soviet Union after the resumption of cultural exchanges. In 1959 a New York critic wrote that his recital at Carnegie Hall was one of the most beautiful concerts heard there in recent memory – an event that led to an immediate booking for two subsequent American tours. It was also during the 1950s that he began recording extensively for Pathé-Marconi (EMI France), including many of the major works of Chopin, Liszt and Schumann. During the 1960s his discography was expanded to include the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Fauré, Scriabin, Prokofiev and virtually the complete works of Debussy and Ravel.

François’s Chopin recordings have long been famous, especially those of the Études, Polonaises, Scherzos and Waltzes. In these he often sounds more Slavic than French, reminding one more of Horowitz or Rachmaninov than of any French pianist. This is also true of his brilliant accounts of Liszt’s Concertos and Hungarian Rhapsodies, where the closest comparison might be with Cziffra. In Ravel and Debussy – even in the latter’s Études – he avoids the dry, ‘etched’ sound favoured by some of his French contemporaries and instead finds infinite shades of colour and degrees of pedal, and does so in a manner that always sounds spontaneous. He may have received an excellent finger technique from Lefébure and Long, and a refined sense of colourism from Cortot, but in the end his technique, like his imagination, was his own. Those who heard him in concert said that he had a magical presence when he was in form, that from the moment he sat down he enveloped his audience in the richness of his sound.

The magic did not last forever. Years of hard living eventually took their toll, and his final concerts often found him in poor form. In October 1970 he returned to the recording studio to finish his complete Debussy project with the 12 Études. After many long sessions, however, he was only able to make satisfactory recordings of five of them. On 22 October the engineers prepared for a further session, but François failed to arrive. Only later that evening did they learn that he had suffered a fatal heart attack while on his way to the studio. He was only 46 years old. Fittingly, one of the last pieces he played in public, a few days earlier in Nancy, had been Scarbo.