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Les Sons et Les Parfums
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Impromptu in E major (1909) [2:36]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Nocturne no.4 in E flat major, op.36 (c.1884) [6:50]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Intermezzo in A flat major, FP 118 (1943) [4:22]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Habanera (1885) [5:12]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Poisson d’or, no.3 from Images, Book 2 (1907) [4:24]
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, no.4 from Préludes, Book 1 (1909-10) [3:35]
Reflets dans l’eau, no.1 from Images, Book 1 (1905) [5:24]
Clair de Lune, no.3 from Suite Bergamasque (pub.1905) [5:39]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Jeux d’eau (1901) [5:53]
Sonatine (1903-5) [11:26]
Janina Fialkowska (piano)
rec. 2019, Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm, Québec
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD22766 [55:21]

This CD is a ‘Box of Delights.’ Each work played here is a miniature masterpiece that explores the genius of French pianism. Not all the works are well-known: one at least has become unbelievably popular, but avoids becoming hackneyed, by the sheer poetry of the music and the magical performance given by Janina Fialkowska.

The company’s advertising blurb for this new disc explains that is ‘a personal anthology of 20th century French music… [and] this affectionate musical memoir evokes a vibrant portrait of Paris during Fialkowska’s youth, when “Poulenc and Tailleferre were still very much alive, and the souls of Ravel, Debussy, and Fauré were still omnipresent.” In this ambition it succeeds admirably.

The first track is a short ‘Impromptu’ by Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of the ad-hoc grouping of French composers, Les Six. This short work, written in Paris in 1909, is in a trajectory from the romanticism of Chabrier to the neo-classicism of Poulenc by way of Fauré, who is the most obvious influence. It is a well-balanced piece that displays some wayward modulations and rhythmic flexibility, based on a typically flowing 9/8-time signature. A little gem.

Gabriel Fauré’s Nocturne no.4 in E flat major, op.36 was composed around 1884. It exhibits a mood of untroubled sunshine with just a little bit of passion in the middle section. The liner notes suggest childlike innocence and the recollection of church bells inspired the composer. This is a work that is at the musical boundary between Romanticism and Impressionism. Evocatively played here by Janina Fialkowska.

Francis Poulenc is a remarkable composer. He offers a fusion of styles that encompass romanticism, neo-classicism, contemporary popular song, jazz, the naivety of the salon and the formality of the concert hall and recital room. Seriousness is often in counterpoint to wit and humour. The Intermezzo in A flat major, FP 118, written during the Second World War, fuses several of these traits into a charming little piece. Nothing too difficult to understand, just eloquent music full of Gallic charm, like so much of Poulenc’s work.

I am so glad that Janina Fialkowska has chosen to include Emanuel Chabrier’s Habanera (1885). This is one of those pieces written by a Frenchman that conjures Spain better than any Spanish composer ever did! Best known for his orchestral tone poem Espana, Chabrier was a major influence on Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Les Six. Listeners will recall that the ‘Habanera’ is an exotic Spanish dance, with a similar rhythm to the Tango. It originates from Cuba and came to Spain by way of Africa, apparently. The best-known example of this dance is from the first act of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, but Chabrier is no slouch. This is a wonderfully sullen and lugubrious little piece that mirrors the magic of Spain.

Four masterworks by Debussy are featured. The first is the Orient-inspired ‘Poisson d’or’, no.3 from Images, Book 2 composed in 1907. It has been suggested the Debussy was stimulated by a piece of Japanese lacquer work. The music may or may not evoke swimming fish. What it does do is to present the ‘flash of sunlight on water’ created by various pianistic clichés including falling arpeggios and rising scales. It requires a very special competence in imaginative piano playing. Pianist Alfred Cortot has written that this work ‘which, in the trembling of running water of the lively and clear virtuosity, give the dazzling flight of a gleam – a reflection, then another – a quivering and capricious life, which now hides, now bounds forth, captivated by the sorcery of the music’.

The title of this CD is derived Book 1 of the Préludes composed between 1909 and 1910. ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ can be translated as ‘The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air’, but to my mind the English does not quite capture the enchantment of the original title. The text derives from the French symbolist poet, Charles Baudelaire (‘Harmonie du soir’ from his collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal). The music is ‘languorous and sensuous’ in every way and sees some of Debussy’s most advanced harmonies to date. It is an intoxicating piece.

‘Reflets dans l’eau’ is impressionistic music par excellence. All the attributes of the genre are here. From the inherent suggestiveness of the music rather than an attempt to be crassly pictorial, through the characteristic use of the whole tone scale to the incandescent chords and delicate arpeggios, this is music that achieves its aim of filling the mind with ‘impressions’ of water and sunlight dancing in a pool on a hot summer’s day. Monet’s garden always springs to mind. It is the first number in Book 1 of Images published in 1905.

Little need be said about ‘Clair de Lune’ from the Suite Bergamasque. For many listeners it is the most popular of Debussy’s pieces and encapsulates his style and musical aesthetic. This may be an over-simplification, but surely this luscious evocation of moonlight paints a perfect musical picture. No matter how many times I hear this work it manages to cast its spell in my heart and soul. Long may it continue to do so. It is played beautifully here.

Two of Maurice Ravel’s most important piano works conclude this splendid recital. ‘Jeux d’eau’ was composed in 1901. Ravel wrote about this piece, ‘In ‘Jeux D’eau’ can be found the origins of all the pianistic innovations that people notice in my works. The music was inspired by the sound of water, of fountains, waterfalls and streams. It is built on the two motives of a sonata form movement, without, however, conforming to the classical scheme of tonality.’ Despite its loosely classical formal scheme, the overall impression to the listener is of ‘cascading arpeggios.’ It needs little else saying save that Janina Fialkowska gives a sparkling performance which balances the Lisztian technical prowess with a more colourful, impressionistic sound.

The final piece is Ravel’s Sonatine (1903-05), originally written for a piano competition. Despite the title, there is nothing didactic about this well-structured classical work. It is certainly far removed from the ‘sonatinas’ piano students struggle with in their early years. The work has been criticised (unfairly, I think) for lacking emotion. The liner notes get it right when it states that ‘this score suggests a benevolent melancholy whose gentle archaism delights us.’

The booklet include a short ‘personal’ introduction to this CD by Janina Fialkowska. This is followed by interesting and helpful notes by Alain Bénard. There is a short biography of the artist. They are given in French and English. I was a wee bit disappointed by the brevity of this disc, a mere 55 minutes. I do feel that a few more worthy pieces of French piano music could have been included: maybe some lesser known pieces by Jacques Ibert or Louis Durey would have been ideal?

Full details of Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska are available in a long and a short version on her excellent webpage.

I found this CD made a perfect introduction to French piano music. Most of these pieces are old favourites for me. However, I was delighted to make a discovery in Germaine Tailleferre’s lovely ‘Impromptu’. I enjoyed Janina Fialkowska’s inspired playing in all these pieces. She brings huge resources of talent, technique and interpretation to this recital.

John France



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