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This first issue in APR’s French Piano School series is absorbing and thought-provoking. Dedicated to two pianists, Marius-François Gaillard (1900-1973) and Carmen Guilbert (1906-1964), it evokes Marguerite Long’s definition of the French piano school as ‘lucid, precise, slender. If it concentrates above all on grace rather than force … it nevertheless does not bow to any other in its power and the profundity of its inner emotion.’ As a corollary Caroline Rae’s excellent note tells us that ‘a premium was placed on fast, clean and brilliant finger-work’, yet it should also be stressed that all three composers were lovers of finesse expressed in the finest shades of pianissimo and the widest spectrum of colour.

Listening to Gaillard’s Debussy you realise the shock provided by the advent of Gieseking’s Debussy, its subtle half-tints and chiaroscuro the reverse of all that had gone before. Certainly there are none of Gieseking’s opalescent day-dreams in Gaillard’s way with the first Arabesque, taken at a spanking pace that shines a bright light on Debussy’s crepuscular world. Per contra, Masques (for the composer ‘the tragedy of experience’, for Cortot ‘a riot of Italian comedy’) is oddly slow, its mysterious coda broken-backed. In ‘Pagodes’ tempi fluctuate like a faulty mains while the Menuet from the Suite bergamasque sounds more sad and limping than piquant. Carmen Guilbert’s way with ‘Minstrels’, too, with its braking and accelerating comes close to parody, but she is deft and sparkling in Fauré’s second Impromptu and is sympathetic to the sixth Nocturne’s opening gravitas.

You will hear finer recordings of all these works, but that does not invalidate the experience of listening to playing of another time. This is an intriguing issue even when it has you blowing hot and cold.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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