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8.553740 - FAURE: Preludes, Op. 103 / Impromptus

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) Préludes, Op. 103
Prélude de Pénélope
Impromptus, Opp. 25,31,34,91,102 & 86bis

Born in Pamier on 12th May 1845, Gabriel Fauré had his principal musical training at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris, where he was a student from 1854 until 1865. His discovery there of plainchant made a great impression on him, leaving an indelible mark on his aesthetic outlook.

Fauré began to become known in the 1870s, thanks to the Société Nationale de Musique, in the establishment of which he had taken part. In Germany he heard the music of Wagner. Impressed by its power, he nevertheless remained apart from it, preferring to develop works marked by a very personal style. His reputation was growing and in 1892 he became organist at the Madeleine, then, four years later, succeeded Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, counting among his pupils Ravel, Koechlin, Aubert and Schmitt, among others.

Director of the Conservatoire from 1905, Fauré showed remarkable authority in the innovations he made. It was only in 1920 that, deaf already for some years, he retired from public life. He died in Paris in 1924.

The writer Paul Landormy has noted that to speak of Fauré is to touch on what is most intimate and most secret in the genius of France1. The words epitomize the uniqueness of Fauré's art. A fervent admirer of Mendelssohn and of Chopin, he rejected excess, to convey the poetry of his inspiration through a musical language of great refinement. Unfortunately some only heard or wanted to hear in his music an easy elegance and the atmosphere of the salon. Yet there is nothing easy about this music the riches of which the listener must learn to understand without being troubled by what there often is in it of the ambiguous or disconcerting.

"There are sometimes privileged moments when poetry and music are seen to join as brothers one with the other, as if through some sudden conspiracy" wrote Vladimir Jankélévitch2 Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise / Où l'Indécis au Précis se joint (Nothing is dearer than the grey song / Where Indefinite and Definite meet). This "grey song" that Paul Verlaine celebrates in his Art Poétique belongs also to Fauré and it would be hard to understand his genius outside the context of symbolist poetry. His music has made his own the poet's Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui le cou" (Take eloquence and wring its neck). Nocturnes, Barcarolles, Préludes, we continually experience in Fauré minute nuances and subtle gradations, assisted by writing that is comparable to none.

A late example of Fauré's piano music, the nine Préludes, Opus 103, form one of the most underrated examples of his work. It was in 1909 and 1910, at the heart of the period that saw the composition of Pénélope, written between 1907 and 1913, a period, moreover, rich in music for the piano, such as the Barcarolles Nos. 8-11 and the Nocturnes Nos. 9-11, that the group of Préludes was written. The work of a composer of sixty-six, already going deaf, these last must be considered in the light of the biographical context in which they were conceived, the often nostalgic and bitter dimension that marks them then taking on its full meaning. There is nothing uniform in a collection that bears witness, on the contrary, to a great diversity of moods, and, moreover, to great terseness of expression.

In D flat major Prélude No.1 is marked Andante molto moderato and is in the manner of a nocturne. Prélude No.2, in C sharp minor and marked Allegro, forms a complete contrast, a kind of moto perpetuo that taxes the legato technique of a performer. The spirit of the nocturne re-appears in Prélude No. 3, in G minor and marked Andante, about which Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote "it might be a barcarolle strangely interrupting a theme of very modern stylistic contour"3. Among the most attractive, Prélude No.4, in F major and marked Allegretto moderato, casts a spell on the ear through the subtlety of a harmony tinged with the modal and its melodic freshness. Ce bel accès de colère (‘This fine outburst of anger’) wrote Louis Aguettant4 of the Prélude No.5, an Allegro in D minor that is striking in its dark and anxious mood, followed by an ending full of resignation. This leads to Prélude No.6, an Andante in E flat minor, in the form of a canon. In A major, Prélude No.7, marked Andante moderato, grows gradually livelier, sensual in its expression, leading in the end to the mood of calm with which it began. Like the second of the series, Prélude No.8, in C minor and marked Allegro, offers a particularly technical aspect, with its repeated notes suggesting the character of a toccata. Prélude No.9, an Adagio in E minor, brings to an end the set with a lyrical quality marked by seriousness and detachment. "This last prelude", wrote Jankélévitch, "belongs from beginning to end to another world."

Gabriel Fauré's opera Pénélope occupied the composer from 1907 to 1912 and was first performed at the Monte Carlo Opera on 4th March 1913 under the direction of Léon Jehin, with the soprano Lucienne Bréval in the title rôle. It was she, indeed, who had urged Fauré to undertake the composition of the work and had introduced him to René Fauchois, the author of the libretto. In spite of the fine elements it contains, this work has never become part of operatic repertoire and today generally nothing of it is known except the prelude, in its orchestral version or in the piano arrangement made by Fauré. In G minor, it starts with the Andante moderato Penelope theme, serious and noble in character, followed a little later by a very manly motif symbolizing Ulysses. This material provides writing of great polyphonic wealth that is particularly well suited to the piano.

The collection of five Impromptus appeared two years after the death of Fauré. This brought together work from the first and the last periods of the composer's creative life, works that had before appeared as separate publications. Contemporary with the Romances sans Paroles, Opus 17, of the Barcarolle No.1 and the first three Nocturnes, the first three Impromptus were written in 1883. Alfred Cortot compared Impromptu No.1, Opus 25, in E flat major to a rapid barcarolle, in which carefree grace characterizes the lighter mood of the whole series. In F minor, Impromptu No.2, Opus 31, delights us with its airy and impalpable writing, but the most attractive and most famous of these first three remains the A flat major Impromptu No.3, Opus 34, a work remarkable for its dash and the delicacy of its colouring. With this last, Fauré abandoned the impromptu for more than twenty years. He only returned to it, in fact, in 1905 with the D flat major Impromptu No.4, Opus 91, that, without giving way to a dark mood, shows always a profound maturity of style, as evinced in the meditative Andante central section. In F sharp minor, Impromptu No.5, Opus 102, written in 1910, delights us through the fluidity of its writing and by the harmonic flavour suggested by the use of the whole-tone scale. Impromptu, Opus 86, in D flat major, originally written for harp for a Conservatoire competition, was composed in 1904. Some years later Alfred Cortot made a transcription of it for piano and this was published by Durand in 1913 as Opus 86bis. It provides a fine conclusion to the collection of Impromptus.

Alain Cochard
English version by Keith Anderson

1 Paul Landormy, La musique française de Franck à Debussy, Gallimard
2 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Fauré et l'inexprimable, Plon
3 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Fauré, Seuil-Solfèges
4 Louis Aguettant, La musique de piano, Albin Michel

Pierre-Alain Volondat
Pierre-Alain Volondat was born in 1962 at Vouzon, Loire-et-Cher, he studied at the Orléans Conservatoire and then at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, where he won first prizes in harmony, chamber music and piano in 1982 and 1983 respectively. The following year, at the age of twenty, he won the First Grand Prix, the Queen Fabiola prize and the Audience Prize at the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians Competition and since then has enjoyed a career that has taken him to success in most countries of Europe as well as in the Far East. In technique and musical understanding Pierre-Alain Volondat acknowledges a debt to Vera Moore, continuing the tradition of Clara Schumann. His wide repertoire extends from Bach to Xenakis and he is also a composer.

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