Francis Planté made his dé at the age of seven as a child prodigy, and won a premier prix in the class of Antoine Marmontel (1816–1898) at the Paris Conservatoire. After three years of performing frequently at chamber music concerts, he returned to the Conservatoire to study harmony with François Bazin (1816–1878), gaining a second prize in 1855. He became acquainted with Liszt and Rossini and in 1861 played Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. After this he retired to the Pyrénées for ten years during which time he studied a wealth of music. His reappearance in Paris in 1872 was the beginning of his adult career in which he toured Europe and Russia and was considered one of the best French pianists of the day. In 1878 he played Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor Op. 40 in London and in 1886 played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Paris. He gave many concerts for charity and during World War I came out of retirement to support the French cause. Planté spent his old age on his estate near Mont-de-Marsan and it was there in 1928 that he made his only recordings.
It is extraordinary to think that a pianist who was already ten years of age when Chopin died in 1849 could have made sound recordings. Planté was always working at the piano; as he told Marguerite Long, he was ‘…a student, still plodding in my ninetieth year’. Because of this he kept up his technique and played Chopin études when he was in his nineties. Gaby Casadesus and her husband spent an afternoon with Planté at this time. She said that Planté was ‘…a really wonderful Chopin player… I remember that he played the Chopin Barcarolle in an incredible way even then. He knew some Chopin students, including Georges Mathias, who is remembered most for having taught Raoul Pugno and Isidor Philipp.’
His concerts were usually long affairs and in May 1928 when the indefatigable Planté had given two concerts in a single day (he was approaching ninety years of age), his American friend Irving Schwerké, eager to have Planté’s art preserved, interested the French Columbia Company in recording him. However, Planté would not travel to the recording studios in Paris, so Columbia took their recording equipment to his home in July 1928 and spent two days recording the great pianist. Eighteen sides were issued, and remarkably, all were first takes. Planté does play the odd wrong note, but at his age, and without editing, this is hardly surprising. He recorded seven of Chopin’s etudes; some Schumann and Mendelssohn; and arrangements of Gluck, Boccherini and Berlioz. The sound on these discs is particularly good and the recordings faithfully capture the timbre of Planté’s Érard piano on which he produces a large sound.
Planté has the stamina and technique to play Chopin’s Étude Op. 25 No. 11 and in the Spinning Song from Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte his finger independence, varieties of touch and inimitable French style can be heard. In the Sérénade from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust Planté gives a bravura performance, whilst in Schumann’s Romance in F sharp Op. 28 No. 2 he chooses a brisker tempo than usually heard and by doing so, sustains the momentum.
These discs are historical documents of one of the earliest pianists to have been recorded. Certainly there are better versions of these works on disc, but to be able to hear an important figure like Planté is a rare privilege. To date the entire recordings have not been reissued on CD, but were issued on LP by Pearl/Opal in 1987.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist