Marcelle Meyer’s father was a wholesale hop merchant in Lille who had two daughters. The elder, Germaine, was an accomplished pianist and as she was nine years older than her sister Marcelle, she became the younger sister’s first piano teacher. The sisters went to Paris to study, Marcelle first studying with Marguerite Long at the Paris Conservatoire. She then continued her studies with Alfred Cortot, winning a premier prix from his class at the age of sixteen. Meyer later took private lessons from Ricardo Viñes who revealed the secrets of Ravel’s music to her, and although he was a specialist in the performance of Spanish music, Meyer herself apparently learnt this repertoire from José Iturbi. She also met Debussy and studied his préludes with him.
As early as 1918 Meyer was performing works by Bach, Rameau, Byrd, Dandrieu and Scarlatti on the piano. Between the two World Wars, Meyer and her actor husband Pierre Bertin, also from Lille, were at the centre of musical Paris. Bertin was an amateur pianist and singer who was the first to sing Satie’s Socrate at sight and he also performed Schubert’s Dichterliebe with his wife. From 1925 Meyer appeared every year in London, often giving two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, and on 24 June of that year played Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Eugene Goossens at the Queen’s Hall. The programme also contained Honegger’s Chant de joie and the overture to Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, but a reviewer found both concertos ‘…a delight to hear. Miss Meyer sits quietly at the piano and devotes her whole attention to getting things exactly right. She plays almost entirely with fingers and wrists and the result is tone without noise. She keeps the line splendidly supple as well as strong.’ The following year she took part in a concert by the Russian Ballet at His Majesty’s Theatre mainly devoted to works by Eric Satie. The Times critic was not amused: ‘…they were heard with respect, but little enthusiasm.’ However, ‘There was more vitality in four new pieces by Stravinsky, also played by Mme Meyer. The composer appears to have reached, in his eclectic journey down the ages, the Mendelssohnian period.’ On another occasion, after hearing Meyer play Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka a critic wrote, ‘Miss Meyer has a technique of the sort which does not recognize the existence of difficulties.’ A 1926 Wigmore Hall recital given on a Pleyel piano was quite a mixed bag of repertoire, including works by Bach, Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz, Milhaud, Lord Berners, Auric, Satie, Poulenc (the first performance of his Napoli) and Stravinsky (Three Movements from Petrushka). In 1930 Richard Strauss invited Meyer to Budapest to participate in a festival of his works: she played his Burleske for piano and orchestra which the composer conducted.
Meyer gave many first performances, particularly of compositions by ‘Les Six’, with whom she was closely involved. In 1920 at the Salle Gaveau she played five studies for piano and orchestra by Milhaud and later gave the first performance of his Scaramouche with Ida Jankelevitch at the other piano. She also gave first performances of Stravinsky’s Serenade and Les Noces and the first two novelettes by Poulenc. In April 1920 Meyer and Ravel gave the first performance of Ravel’s La Valse on two pianos in the presence of Diaghilev, Poulenc and Stravinsky. Meyer did all she could to promote the music of her contemporary compatriots Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, Satie and Milhaud. She has been described as a ‘fervent, but self-effacing priestess’ for these composers as well as for Stravinsky, but she also championed the great French keyboard composers of the past, Rameau and Couperin. Meyer’s promotion of contemporary music was not always well judged. At the 1937 fifth International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice she played the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Vittorio Rieti who had strong connections with the Paris musical scene between 1925 and 1940. The orchestration was described as ludicrous in its ineptitude: ‘It did not appear, however, that the bad orchestration was concealing any important musical ideas.’
Meyer has the reputation of not playing nineteenth-century music, but in the 1920s and 1930s she performed Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and Études Symphoniques Op. 13; groups of Chopin pieces including the Barcarolle Op. 60; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 109 and even Balakirev’s Islamey. At this time she also appeared in London with violinist Jelly d’Arányi playing Ravel’s Violin Sonata.
In 1943 she programmed Rameau and Debussy in the first half of a concert, and Couperin and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit in the second. At this time Meyer lost many of her supporters by playing for the Germans in occupied Paris and in 1947 settled in Rome.
The majority of Meyer’s recordings were reissued on fifteen compact discs in three volumes by French EMI between 1992 and 1995. Meyer’s first discs were made in 1925 whilst she was in London. She performed with Eugene Goossens on 24 June, and on 30 June recorded two works for HMV. There were only two sessions for HMV, the other being on 1 December 1925, from which only four sides were issued. She recorded works by her favourite composers: Debussy, Chabrier, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Albéniz, and Falla. The published sides and three unpublished sides were issued on compact disc, although the recording dates given are incorrect.
After recording a few sides for French Columbia in 1929, including an excellent Alborada del gracioso by Ravel, Meyer recorded Milhaud’s Scaramouche for two pianos in 1938 in Paris with the composer at the second piano. Her only other HMV recordings were made in Paris in 1943, and these are of Richard Strauss’s Burleske, the work that she had played under the composer in 1930. The recorded performance is conducted by André Cluytens.
Between 1946 and 1956 Meyer recorded a huge amount of repertoire for the French label Les Discophiles Françaises including the complete préludes and Images by Debussy. Her approach to the préludes is not one of reverence: Danseuses de Delphes is played somewhat faster and more straightforwardly than usual, and she does not use a pointillist style. Of Ravel she recorded Gaspard de la nuit, Sonatine, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Le Tombeau de Couperin, an excellent Miroirs and various short pieces. With Francis Poulenc she recorded Chabrier’s Trois valses romantiques for two pianos, and the Dix pièces pittoresques and ten other pieces by Chabrier. Of Stravinsky’s works Meyer recorded the Serenade, Sonata, Ragtime and the Three Movements from Petrushka. In addition to twentieth-century music she recorded excellent versions on the piano of most of Rameau’s keyboard works, some Couperin, and more than thirty sonatas by Scarlatti. Most of these recordings are very fine, particularly the Scarlatti sonatas. Meyer’s precise articulation and strongly defined rhythm, so apt for much of the twentieth-century repertoire, is ideal for this early music. Meyer did not restrict herself to French composers and recorded a large amount of Bach including the two- and three-part inventions, four partitas, an English Suite, some toccatas and other single works. All the Bach works were recorded in the late 1940s and are taken from 78rpm discs, and in some cases the pitches have not been corrected on the EMI compact disc transfers from the 1990s. However, in 2004 and 2005 French EMI issued two pairs of compact discs in their splendid series Les Rarissimes where the two- and three-part inventions are at correct pitch; these are coupled with the Scarlatti sonatas. The other pair of discs contains Meyer’s excellent Rameau recordings, probably the best version on the piano, and extracts from Rossini’s Péchés de Vieillesse. With conductor Maurice Hewitt she recorded two Mozart concertos, K. 466 and K. 488, as well as three of the piano sonatas and some Schubert dances.
One of Meyer’s specialities was the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major. She played it in London at the Proms in 1933 two years after it was published, and again in 1936 and 1937; but unfortunately did not record it commercially, no doubt because Marguerite Long’s 1932 Columbia recording, made in the presence of the composer, cornered the market. However, a recording of a Meyer performance does exist although date and details of the other musicians involved are not known. Two other obscure recordings are the Sonata del sur Op. 52 for piano and orchestra (1945) by Oscar Esplá, which was recorded for Hispavox and conducted by the composer; and Vivaldi’s Concerto Op. 3 with cellist János Starker from 1950, issued by Paradox and Nixa. Fortunately, recordings by Meyer are still being issued, the most recent being radio broadcasts from France and Italy issued in 2005 by Tahra. There is some fine playing in Debussy’s complete Images, Chopin’s Barcarolle Op. 60 and Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España.
Meyer’s heyday was the time between the World Wars in Paris, and although she had artistic success in the recording studio during her last decade, it was the earlier time for which she is fondly remembered. As one critic wrote of her in the 1930s, ‘While listening to Miss Marcelle Meyer playing the piano one is made to think all the time of the play of light on surfaces – many-coloured but mostly bright surfaces.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).