Two leading French musicians bring their customary clarity and finesse to a recital of works by four composers who defined the path of the French art song or mélodie from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Soprano Sabine Devieilhe and pianist Alexandre Tharaud have assembled an imaginatively balanced programme of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. Extending from the 1870s to the 1940s, it juxtaposes audience favourites – such as Fauré’s discreetly passionate ‘Après un rêve’ and Poulenc’s nostalgic waltz ‘Les Chemins de l’amour’ – with more rarely heard songs.
“The title of the album, is taken from a song by Fauré, ‘Chanson d’amour’,” explains Alexandre Tharaud. “It evokes love, but our programme also includes songs inspired by folklore [Ravel’s enchanting Cinq Chansons populaires grecques], war [Poulenc’s forlorn, yet exquisite ‘C’] and death [Fauré’s ‘Les Berceaux’ and Ravel’s ‘Ballade de la reine morte d’aimer’] … Sabine and I chose wide-ranging repertoire … We started off with the two song cycles – Ravel’s Greek songs and Debussy’s Verlaine settings, Ariettes oubliées – and these became the pillars of our programme. We then chose individual songs, aiming both for diversity and for the occasional surprise.”
“Debussy and Ravel were musts for me,” says Sabine Devieilhe. “They simply had to be included in our programme. Fauré, as their spiritual father, was a natural choice, and Poulenc offered something spicier and spikier. We were able to conceive the programme as a recital, taking the listener somewhere new.”
“These four composers belong to the same lineage and you can hear the way they relate to each other,” continues Alexandre Tharaud. “Debussy and Ravel are like two half-brothers who were both weaned on Fauré’s music. They absorbed his melodic craft, the way he connects with the voice, that special sense for a dialogue between voice and piano and for instrumental writing of great delicacy. Everything comes together in Poulenc, since the influence of the three older composers can be heard in all his vocal music.
“All these songs have been recorded before, but songs like Ravel’s ‘Sur l’herbe’ and ‘Chanson française’ are not often heard, either on disc or in the concert hall. These four composers handled voice and piano, and their interplay, with enormous subtlety. Sometimes the piano can be like an orchestra, but it can also tone itself down in response to the text, achieving its aims with great economy of means. I’m thinking of the ‘blue notes’ that Chopin liked so much and which can be found here in such songs as the Ariettes oubliées, Poulenc’s ‘Hôtel’ and Ravel’s ‘Trois Oiseaux de paradis’, in which the composer even asks the piano to play a melody with no accompaniment, creating the impression of a dialogue between two singing voices. I dream of a piano that could really sing.”
“The first time Alexandre and I performed together was when we recorded Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’ for Erato, and our musical rapport was obvious,” adds Sabine Devieilhe. “Though that piece has no text, I could hear the way Alexandre created meaning on the piano – whether conversational, melancholy or defiant. Now, with this ‘love song’, we are both able to savour the texts. There are countless colours in these French songs and it was our mission to bring those colours out.”
Dancing in the moonlight: for the Claude Debussy centenary on Sunday 25 March, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud has joined forces with acrobat, dancer and choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for a breathtaking new video and recording of the composer’s most beloved classic, Clair de lune. The Alexandre Tharaud single will be available on Erato (Warner Classics) through streaming platforms and digital download. Listen here.
In the mesmerising short film, an ordinary man seems to defy the laws of gravity as he leaps and bounds off a trampoline, reaching ever higher. He spins and twirls his way across an unadorned white staircase leading nowhere, like fingers dancing across piano keys.
Yoann Bourgeois, one of France’s most in-demand contemporary dancers, met with pianist Alexandre Tharaud – whose mother was a dance teacher at the Opéra de Paris – to collaborate on this unique interpretation of Clair de lune that captures the dreamlike whimsy in the most famous movement of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem by the same name (English translation, simply: ‘Moonlight’).
Instantly recognisable and irresistibly romantic, Clair de lune is one of the most popular piano compositions of all time, heard in recent years in films such as Twilight and Ocean’s Eleven. This new rendition unites two of today’s greatest French creative minds in a strikingly modern performance of this iconic French music.
Alexandre Tharaud said: 'Debussy's music is in essence universal. Clair de lune seems evident; it flows naturally.
'I thought of Yoann for Clair de lune because his art is based on weightlessness, the body in flight. And Yoann is a dreamer.'
Yoann Bourgeois added: ‘To create – to be creative – is to draw a door on the wall, and then open the door. Clair de lune opens this door wide to transport us to a time where time doesn’t pass. We become children again when we listen to this music. When artists explore ideas together, we become like childhood friends. Alexandre [Tharaud] simply closed his eyes and we found each other, on the other side of the door.’
Alexandre Tharaud's new Rachmaninov album is among The New York Times' Best Classical Recordings of 2016.
"There are numerous classic recordings of Rachmaninov’s popular Second Piano Concerto. Yet the elegant Mr. Tharaud’s version, at once probing and impetuous, is exceptional," writes critic Anthony Tommasini.
"While playing with plenty of virtuosic flair, he brings out inner voices and harmonic subtleties that seem fresh, even startling. This rewarding album also includes a thoughtful selection of shorter Rachmaninov pieces."
Discover the full list of The New York Times Best Classical Recordings of 2016 here.
Alexandre Tharaud recorded Rachmaninov's famed Second Piano Concerto in Liverpool, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. This weekend, the French pianist reuintes with the same orchestra for a hotly anticipated (and sold out) 'Rach 2', this time in Tharaud's hometown, envelopped in the astounding acoustics of the Philharmonie de Paris.
It's just one of seven concerts for which Tharaud has been given carte blanche this weekend to explore the music of Rachmaninov in his different guises. Like the new album, Tharaud Plays Rachmaninov, the Philharmonie de Paris presents not only the blockbuster of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2, but also solo and chamber works, vocal music and pieces for piano six-hands.
Following the launch of Alexandre Tharaud's Rachmaninov release in a scintillating concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra last Friday, the recording has been chosen as Classic FM's Album of the Week from Monday 24 October, and can be heard on the airwaves on John Suchet's morning programme throughout the week.
"The brilliant French pianist Alexandre Tharaud takes on the all-time Classic FM Hall of Fame favourite – Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2 – in this thrilling performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Russian maestro Alexander Vedernikov," wrote Classic FM. "It's the first time Tharaud has devoted an entire album to Russian repertoire and he does not shirk from eschewing the work's romanticism to explore its darker shadows.
"The Rach 2 is coupled here with more intimate Rachmaninov for three pianists and a little sweeter icing on the cake comes in the form of a sublime Vocalise in its original version for voice and piano, with the pure-voiced French soprano Sabine Devieilhe."
Often described as the greatest piano concerto ever written, the mighty 'Rach 2' takes a darker turn on Alexandre Tharaud's heart-wrenching new album out today. "I'm still enthralled by the concerto's virtuosity, but now I'm more interested in its dark shadows," the French pianist explains, "the sense of despair, of staring into the abyss. My interpretation of Rachmaninov has changed a lot over the years.
“The concerto was written in 1900, exactly at the turn of the century," he continues. "It was an important year for Rachmaninov because he was coming out of a dark period, a depression. He underwent treatment with hypnosis, but writing this concerto must surely have helped him emerge from that depression. Rachmaninov was reborn with this work … It really is a supreme masterpiece, a real milestone in the life of the composer, and can be seen as dividing his career into two halves. It marks both the turn of the century and a fresh start for Rachmaninov.”
Tharaud recorded the concerto in Liverpool, and once again joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra last night for the sold-out album launch concert. "The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is an extraordinary orchestra for this Russian music," he enthused.
The album pairs the mighty concerto with smaller-scale piano works, for which Tharaud recruited two Slavic musicians who happen to share his forename: the Serbian Alexander Madžar and the Russian Alexander Melnikov! The three pianists gathered at one keyboard to record two rarely-heard pieces for six hands, both in the key of A Major and written nearly a decade before the Concerto No 2: a Romance – which bears a close resemblance to the much-loved Adagio of the Concerto No. 2 – and a Valse.
Dating from a similar period are the solo Morceaux de fantaisie, which Tharaud describes as “character pieces that are clearly precursors to the concerto”. They are again in keeping with the style and spirit of the concerto with their “mixture of vehement forcefulness and incredible tenderness, brought to life by a highly creative imagination”.
Another guest appearance – by the young French soprano Sabine Devieilhe – completes the album. She joins Tharaud for a performance of the gorgeous wordless Vocalise. This is another of Rachmaninov’s best-known works, but only comparatively rarely has it been recorded, as here, in its original version for voice and piano.
Tharaud Plays Rachmaninov: new album out now.
It’s the second year in a row that Warner Classics and Erato have taken the lion’s share in the ECHO Klassik Awards, the prestigious German classical music prizes revealed today. Artists from the two labels claimed a total of twelve accolades for excellence in classical recording and performance, including one for the Warner Classics-distributed Euroarts DVD label.
Philippe Jaroussky has been crowned Singer of the Year for the second time (his 5th ECHO Klassik) – the only countertenor ever named in this category to date. He receives the prize for his album Green, a journey through French chanson settings of poetry by Paul Verlaine.
From the Francophile flair of his last recital album, Jaroussky chose to sing in German for the first time for his highly-anticipated recording of Bach and Telemann cantatas with Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, to be released in October. And as this year’s artist in residence at the Norddeutscher Rundfunk in Hamburg, set to sing at the opening night of Hamburg’s new concert hall Elbphilharmonie, he has developed stronger connections to German musical life than ever before.
Conductor of the Year goes to Antonio Pappano for his monumental studio recording of Aïda. The Italian-British maestro recorded Verdi’s masterpiece with an all-star cast (including Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann) in Rome and received international critical acclaim, including the BBC Music Award for Album of the Year and a Diapason d’Or.
Diana Damrau is the second Erato singer who picks up a prize this year, for her tour-de-force Violetta in the Paris Opera production of Traviata released on DVD (Music DVD Production of the Year: Opera).
Young French cellist Edgar Moreau receives the ECHO Klassik 2016 as Newcomer of the Year for his Baroque album Giovincello, on which he brings his youthful energy and virtuosic thrills to 18th-century cello concertos by Haydn, Vivaldi, Boccherini, Platti, and the world-premiere recording of a concerto by Carlo Graziani. He was just 21 at the time he made this vibrant recording with Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro.
Classical without Borders is a category of the ECHO Klassik for music productions that build a bridge either to or from the classical genre. Two awards in this category go to Warner Classics artists: the John Wilson Orchestra (for Cole Porter in Hollywood), which will make its German concert debut in September, and the German quartet Salut Salon for their delightfully whimsical album Carnival Fantasy.
Two Erato pianists receive prizes: Bertrand Chamayou (Solo Recording of the Year) for his multi-faceted recording of Ravel’s complete works for solo piano, and Alexandre Tharaud (Music DVD production of the Year: Concert) for the majestic and detailed film of him playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which was released as a bonus DVD accompanying the album.
The ECHO for Concert Recording of the Year (19th-century music) goes to Il Pomo d’Oro for their Haydn Concertos album, in which joint music directors Riccardo Minasi on violin and harpsichordist Maxim Emelyanychev take turns leading this refined yet lively Baroque band.
Violinist Vilde Frang receives the prize for Concerto Recording of the Year (20th/21st century music) for her latest album of violin concertos by Korngold and Britten, an unusual but riveting pairing that Frang has said it was her dream to record.
The Artemis Quartet receives the prize for the Chamber Music Recording of the Year. Their intense Brahms’ String Quartets 1 & 3 is the final album the Quartet recorded with their late violist Friedemann Weigle, who tragically passed away last year.
The DVD label EuroArts music, distributed via Warner Classics Label Services, takes home the ECHO for Music DVD Production of the Year: Documentary for Ralf Pleger’s The Tschaikovsky Files.
Congratulations to all the winners. The full list of Erato and Warner Classics ECHO prizewinners below makes for a wonderfully comprehensive Best of 2015. The awards ceremony will take place in October. More information about the ECHO Klassik Awards here.
Singer of the Year (male):
Philippe Jaroussky (Green) – Erato
Conductor of the Year:
Antonio Pappano (AIDA) – Warner Classics
Newcomer of the Year (Cello):
Edgar Moreau (Giovincello) – Erato
Classics without Borders:
John Wilson Orchestra (Cole Porter in Hollywood) – Warner Classics
Salut Salon (Carnival Fantasy) – Warner Classics
Concerto Recording of the Year (19th-century music):
Il Pomo d’Oro (Haydn: Concertos) – Erato
Concerto Recording of the Year (20th/21st-century music):
Vilde Frang (Britten/Korngold) – Warner Classics
Solo Recording of the Year (20th/21st-century music / piano):
Bertrand Chamayou (Ravel) - Erato
Chamber Music Recording of the Year (19th century music / strings):
Artemis Quartett (Brahms) - Erato
Music DVD Production of the Year (Opera):
Diana Damrau (La Traviata) – Erato
Music DVD Production of the Year (concert):
Alexandre Tharaud (Bach: Goldberg Variations) – Erato
Music-DVD-Production of the Year (documentary):
Ralf Pleger (The Tschaikovsky Files) - EuroArts
Erik Satie: The Oldest of the Moderns
With his unfailingly immaculate detachable collar and his brilliant conversation, Satie delighted the salons of Parisian society and gathered around his bowler-hatted figure with umbrella several generations of musicians from Claude Debussy to Henri Sauguet. His personality quickly took precedence over his music in the public’s perception. Is the situation different 150 years after his birth? The 10-CD complete edition Tout Satie pleads in favour of the affirmative.
Satie was born at Honfleur on 17 May 1866. His mother was of Scottish origin, and his father was a shipping agent; they were Anglican Christians. Torn between Normandy and Paris, the family settled in Paris in 1870. Two years later, Satie’s mother died and his father placed the young boy into the hands of his parents. Six years later, in 1878, his grandmother was found dead on the beach in Honfleur, and so now the 12-year-old Satie returned to live in Paris with his father, who married a young pianist by the name of Eugénie Barnetche. There he took lessons in piano playing, standing out, despite some talent, as a bad student and displaying an equal dislike for his mother-in-law, the instrument and the music.
His disquiet did not prevent him from entering the Paris Conservatoire through a back door in 1879 but only two years elapsed before he escaped with a dismissal: “untalented,” grumbled his teachers, who nevertheless readmitted him to the respectable institution at the end of 1895. There is a somewhat comical trait about this coming and going, rather like a hesitating waltz, that presaged the start of something. In 1884, he composed what appeared to be his first piano piece with the simple title of Allegro - his teachers had been seriously mistaken when they thought the young man definitely had no future in music.
However, Satie decided to take up military service, a blunder that he was soon able to rectify when he developed a serious congestion of the lungs brought on by a deliberate exposure of his naked torso to the cold. It was now 1887, Satie was 21 and had settled in Montmartre. He spent time in cabarets, rubbed shoulders with Verlaine and Mallarmé, composed his Ogives written without bar lines, a style that was to remain one of his signature characteristics, as well as three pieces for piano which were to become the sonic symbol of his work: the Gymnopédies.
Then came the decisive encounter. At the Chat Noir Café-cabaret, he became friendly with Claude Debussy. The first years after 1890 were blessed times: Satie became the "official" composer and choirmaster of the Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique. He started to gain renown and he took Debussy along with him on his sweet pseudo-mystical journey.
Faith but also love revealed themselves to him in the features of Suzanne Valadon: she was to sketch her lover with a beard and long hair in a touching portrait. The end of this relationship, unequally shared, was to leave Satie far more broken-hearted than he wanted to admit to himself. Something snapped suddenly in him. Vexations – a short and dry piece "to play 840 times in a row" – might have been a vain outlet.
Satie’s soul was dead but the composer in him continued to live for 32 more years. Obdurately self-willed, his multi-faceted oeuvre was to be characterised by a modal grammar and white colour that lay outside any established trends, but created a trend of its own that was to marginally influence young people: it was to be a constantly present "elsewhere" in the musical landscapes that followed in Paris at the start of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, in 1895 he received a small inheritance that quickly melted away between his fingers, dispersed in editions of his music. It was the only real moment of relative opulence in a life that was soon reduced to poverty, forcing him to remain a cabaret pianist for a long time and attend social dinners in town by paying with his fine words.
So it was that he would go from the cafés in Montmartre to the tiny room in Arcueil where he finally settled in 1897. Here he composed his works ranging from melodies that he called "thorough rubbish", such as Je te veux, to piano pieces with convoluted and hilarious titles such as Embryons desséchés (“Desiccated Embryos”) and other Peccadilles importunes (“Tiresome Pranks”). His scores abound with performance markings swinging between poetic and humorous comments that are intended for the sole enjoyment of the interpreters.
Even so, Satie felt that his compositional technique was not yet fully fledged, and so in the autumn of 1905 he became a pupil of Vincent d’Indy and Albert Roussel at the Schola Cantorum. His friends thought that he was having one of his funny turns, but under his "good masters" Satie blithely learned the strict academic technique of counterpoint. He dressed it up in his own way and Debussy made fun of it by calling him "Mister Counterpoint". So now he was a perfect musician! Was this necessary for his music?
The First World War now introduced Satie to a new generation. In 1915, through Valentine Gross he met Jean Cocteau, who became a kind of mascot for him. Undoubtedly the poet had some affection for the future composer of Parade, although correspondence that is often coloured with spiteful remarks and clashes over "matters of principle" reveals that the idyll was more often than not a bitter one. But this did not really matter in the long run, since on the one hand Satie became the idol of the young musicians – it was around his small goatee beard that le Groupe des Six was gathered together, he became both their backbone and their catalyst – and on the other hand he also became the composer of Parade.
Up to now, the musician of Arcueil had carved his own way mainly with the piano. Parade inspired the fortification of his art. Could Roussel have ever imagined that his orchestration pupil would write a ballet with a siren, a gun and a typewriter?
Parade was Cocteau’s conception – he "sold" the design of the stage set to Picasso before Satie had composed a single note – but it was Satie’s music that was to create the ‘scandale’ that ultimately spelled a glorious success but also eight days in a detention cell for having called the critic Jean Pouiegh an "unmusical ass". And finally on this subject of Parade, Guillaume Apollinaire should have the last word: in the premiere’s programme, he noted the "surrealist" quality of the show.
With this ballet, Satie had taken a leap forward. Well aware of the journey he had taken from the Montmartre cabarets to the European avant-garde, in 1919 he became friends with Tristan Tzara, Man Ray, André Derain, and Marcel Duchamp.
There was not a single musician friend on the horizon: instead he formed an allegiance with the Dadaists. Taking sides with Tzara in 1922 during the famous discord between the poet and André Breton, he had become so indispensable to the futurist movements that Breton, despite his anathema, decided not to sever ties.
In the short time that Satie had left to live, such notoriety did not bring him the financial relief that he could have hoped for. Poverty persisted, but his music made a quality out of it: the whiteness of timbre, the sparseness, the economy, the writing so modest that it became a quasi-abstraction: these were the culminating attributes of what constitutes after Gymnopédies and Parade his third masterpiece.
In 1918, The Princess of Polignac commissioned him to write what would become Socrate, a triptych full of bare and unchecked emotion. Probably for the first time, Satie was completely happy with his work. The laughter he had to endure at the premiere of the orchestrated version in 1920 left him speechless but yet did not destroy his will to compose.
With Jack in the Box, and Mercure, he sought in vain to recreate the success of Parade. He was not left without friends: in 1923 a group from the School of Arcueil brought him a few young people that were followers of Max Jacob, among them Henri Sauguet and Roger Désormière.
In January 1925, Satie fell ill; it was to be a fatal disease. What a surprise for Milhaud when he entered Satie’s Arcueil lodging for the first time after his death to find two pianos tied together by a rope and the room full of unsealed letters testifying to a life of darkest misery. Here, after the composer’s death, they miraculously found Geneviève de Brabant, a score Satie had pretended to have lost– a final jest of his destiny unless, in keeping with his fabled hoaxing, he might have quietly put it away pending its improbable survival.
Jean-Charles Hoffelé (Translation: Michèle Fajtmann).
The 150th anniversary 10-CD boxed set Tout Satie! is out now.
London's summer feast of classical music, the BBC Proms, has just announced its 2016 line-up, featuring an impressive array of international artists in concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and other venues from 15 July to 10 September.
One of the most hotly anticipated events of the Proms season in the past few years has been the annual concert of the John Wilson Orchestra. This year they return with their signature slick performances of Great American Songbook and Hollywood musical treasures, this time marking the 120th annivesrary of Ira Gershwin's birth. Their forthcoming album, Gershwin in Hollywood, will be available next month, and was recorded during their Royal Albert Hall concert in November 2015.
Meanwhile, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud leads a cabaret-inspired 'Satie Prom' tribute to Erik Satie on the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth.
Another tribute to an iconoclastic French musician: Ensemble Intercontemporain pay homage to their founder, conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, who died in January at the age of 90. Boulez recorded extensively for Erato between 1966 and 1992; these pioneering recordings have been collected in a 14-CD boxed set.
Also returning to the Proms this year is the young British ensemble Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. They have previously performed Mozart's Symphony No.40 and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony at the Proms from memory - a daring feat. This year, these immensely talented musicians again take up the challenge with Mozart's Symphony No.41 'Jupiter' - and not a single music stand in sight. Always pushing boundaries, the group has recorded two albums for Warner Classics: Road Trip and Insomnia.
Martha Argerich's 75th birthday celebrations this year will continue with the Liszt Piano Concerto: Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for the occasion.
Sir Antonio Pappano is a veteran of large-scale operatic events, as his recent award-winning Aïda recording attests. This year, with his Royal Opera House forces, he presents a concert performance of Mussorgsky's grand opera Boris Godunov, Bryn Terfel taking the title role.
See the full programme of 2016 Proms events here.
Jean Guihen Queyras
Willi Zimmermann, Zurich Chamber Orchestra