Samson François Live
CD 1: Recital at the Salle Pleyel, 17 January 1964
CD 2: Recital at the Salle Pleyel, 20 January 1964
CD 3: Concertos Live
rec. (CD3) 17 September 1957, Festival de Montreux, Orchestre National de la RTF/Charles Munch (Schumann); 21 September 1958, Besançon, Orchestre National de la RTF/Lorin Maazel (Prokofiev); 1953 (location unknown) Orchestre National de la RTF/André Cluytens (Franck)
Detailed track-list at end of review
WARNER ERATO 4096002 [3 CDs: 69:21 + 79:59 + 71:35]
The French pianist Samson François (1924-1970) has been well-served on CD over the years. I say French; François was actually born in Frankfurt, where his father worked at the French consulate. Early on in his life he came to the attention of Alfred Cortot, at whose instigation he travelled to Paris to study with Yvonne Lefébure at the École Normale de Musique. A short period of study with Cortot was apparently abandoned - the master could not rein him in. Later he attended the Paris Conservatoire to study with Marguerite Long. His harmony studies were with Nadia Boulanger.
These two 1964 Salle Pleyel recitals and the live concertos from Montreux and Besançon have previously been released in a 36 CD box - ‘L'Édition intégrale - Complete EMI Recordings’, issued by EMI France in 2011. I had already amassed all of the pianist’s studio recordings long before this Complete Edition came out, so this is the first time I have heard these live offerings. I have always felt that François had a very uneven discography. Erratic, quixotic, mercurial and unpredictable are all adjectives used to describe the playing of this, some would say, quirky pianist. These traits were also mirrored in his everyday life. His excessive lifestyle of chain-smoking, night-life and alcohol, unquestionably contributed to his early death at the young age of forty-six. There is no doubt, when listening to these live performances, that François is his own man, and is not hemmed in by convention.
So, what have we got?
The first recital took place at the Salle Pleyel, 17 January 1964 and is an all-Chopin programme. The centre-piece of the recital is a captivating performance of the Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, bookended by single pieces: the Fantaisie, Ballade no. 3, two nocturnes, a waltz, an impromptu and a selection of etudes. The recital, as a whole is very fine, and generally lacks the waywardness that can sometimes affect his playing. Exceptional is the Ballade no. 3, which is a sensitively paced account, with great poetic insights. I find it slightly more fresh and spontaneous than his 1954 studio version. The Fantaisie is marred in parts by some overdone rubato, and the Nocturne Op. 15 no. 1 is a tad pedestrian. These though would be my only quibbles. The highlight for me is the selection of six etudes. One would go a long was to find a more compelling performance of Op. 25, no. 5. I don’t think I’ve heard that luscious left-hand melody so eloquently phrased. The recital ends with a powerful rendition of the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude. You can tell by the applause what the audience thought of it. François throws in two further etudes as encores, for good measure. First up is a scintillating, quicksilver performance of the Op. 10 no. 5 ‘Black Key’ Etude, but the audience clamours for more, and they get it - Op. 25 no. 9.
Three days later, François gave another recital at the same Paris venue. Chopin again features, but this time adding Mozart, Schumann, Liszt and Prokofiev to the mix. It is gratifying to hear the Mozart Sonata, as this composer doesn’t feature prominently in his discography. It’s a delightful performance, marked by elegance and charm. The Chopin Sonata which follows has some distinguishing poetic insights in the first movement. In the second movement, François displays crystalline filigree finger-work. Disappointingly, due to technical reasons, the final movement has not been included. Schumann’s Kinderszenen is song-like and invested with an array of tonal colour. The Prokofiev and Liszt are serviceable. At the end of the recital the pianist turns to his beloved Chopin, performing two waltzes.
On CD 3 we are treated to three live concerto performances. The Schumann is taken from the Montreux Festival 1957, the Prokofiev from Besancon 1958 and the Franck from 1953, provenance unknown. Listening to these three works, I felt that each conductor responded well to the pianist’s very personal approach. The Schumann is a passionate reading and it is unfortunate that the dated sound sometimes obscures some of the orchestral detail. Maazel in the Prokofiev offers admirable support, with both musicians delivering a rhythmically vital performance. Likewise with the Franck, François has a true affinity with this piece.
The recorded sound of the two Salle Pleyel recitals is more than satisfactory. The concerto performances, on the other hand, are definitely showing their age, resulting in some loss of detail in parts. It is admirable that these live performances of a pianist, who was truly a free spirit, have been made available. Booklet notes and track-listings are in French only.
Masterwork Index: Schumann piano concerto
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantaisie en fa mineur, Op.49 [14:09]
Impromptu No. 1 en la bémol majeur, Op.29 [3:30]
Nocturne No. 2 en mi bémol majeur, Op.9 No. 2 [4:38]
Valse No. 7 en ut dièse mineur, Op.64 No. 2 [2:51]
Sonate n° 2 en si bémol mineur, Op.35 [18:38]
Ballade n° 3 en la bémol majeur, Op.47 [7:14]
Nocturne n° 4 en fa majeur, Op.15 n° 1 [3:38]
Etude en la bémol majeur, Op.10 n° 10 [2:11]
Etude en mi mineur, Op.25 n° 5 [3:05]
Etude en fa mineur, Op.25 n° 2 [1:43]
Etude en ut mineur, Op.10 n° 12 [3:10]
Etude en sol bémol majeur, Op.10 n° 5 [2:04]
Etude en sol bémol majeur, Op.25 n° 9 [2:20]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonate n° 4 en si bémol majeur, K.282 [11:58]
Sonate n° 3 en si mineur, Op.58 [21:55]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen (Scènes d'enfants), Op.15 [17:18]
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonate n° 7 en si bémol majeur, Op.83 [18:18]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Le Rossignol (Alabiev) [3:39]
Valse n° 6 en ré bémol majeur, Op.64 n° 1 [2:02]
Valse n° 1 en mi bémol majeur, Op.18 ‘Grande Valse brillante’ [4:31]
Concerto pour piano et orchestre en la mineur, Op.54 [30:35]
Concerto pour piano et orchestre n° 5 en sol majeur, Op.55 [25:54]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
9 Variations Symphoniques pour piano et orchestra [14:47]