Although Raoul Pugno made his debut as a six-year-old boy, with the help of Prince Poniatowski he was then able to study at the École Niedermeyer. At fourteen years of age he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where he won prizes for piano, harmony and organ. His teacher for piano was Georges Mathias, a pupil of Chopin; for organ it was François Benoist; and for composition he learnt with Ambroise Thomas. He left the Conservatoire in 1869 and a few years later became organist at the church of St Eugène, and chorusmaster at the Théâtre Ventadour five years later. He returned to the Conservatoire in 1892 as professor of harmony, later becoming professor of piano in 1896.
It was not until 1893, when Pugno was over forty, that he decided to return to the concert stage. A performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 launched an illustrious performing career that took him across Europe and America. He became renowned for his performances of Mozart piano concertos, Chopin and Franck. His most famous chamber collaboration was with the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931) with whom he worked from 1896, giving celebrated performances of works by Fauré, Saint-Saëns, and Chausson and first performances of sonatas for violin and piano by Albéric Magnard and Louis Vierne. At a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in 1893 Pugno and Debussy provided an accompaniment on two pianos. Pugno’s first tour of America was not a great success, but by 1909 he had increased his fee per concert from $300 to $500. He spent his summers at his home in Gargenville where he taught and entertained, often playing concertos and works for two pianos with Saint-Saëns and the young Nadia Boulanger with whom he wrote his final composition, an opera, La Ville morte, based on a work of d’Annunzio. His compositions are not known today, yet he wrote an oratorio, ballet music, opéra comique, opéra bouffe, pantomime, songs, and a piano sonata. Pugno died whilst on a tour of Russia.
In a letter to one of his pupils, Germaine Schnitzer, Pugno told her, ‘Hear all the music you can, do not miss any of the pianists either good or bad; there is always something to be learnt, even from a poor player, if it is only what to avoid!’
Pugno was probably the first pianist with an international career to record. He had four sessions in Paris during April and November 1903 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. The four pieces he recorded at his first session are of Handel, Scarlatti and Chopin plus one of his own compositions, an Impromptu Valse. The records were unfortunately made on a faulty turntable, resulting in a slight wavering of pitch. Despite the sound, however, they are extremely fine performances. Particularly impressive is the Sonata in A major by Scarlatti which requires rapid crossing of the hands; Pugno carries this off admirably without striking a false note even though he was fifty-one and had grown rather rotund by this stage in his life. The Chopin waltz is fast and frantic, yet most of these recordings have a remarkable dexterity, velocity, virility and lightness of touch (somewhat like that of Pachmann) and display Pugno’s famous jeu de perle technique. His most extended recording is that of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11. It is impetuous and exciting, and has Pugno pushing himself to the extremes of his abilities without any loss of control.
As he had studied with Chopin’s pupil Georges Mathias, Pugno’s recordings of the Polish composer are particularly interesting. He recorded the Impromptu in A flat Op. 29, Berceuse Op. 57, Waltz in A flat Op. 34 No. 1 and the Marche funèbre from the Sonata in B flat minor, where his fortissimo is thunderous when it returns after the trio in the fashion of Rachmaninov and Anton Rubinstein. Pugno’s most important recording however, is that of Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp Op. 15 No. 2. Pugno stated that he thought this nocturne was habitually played too fast. ‘The tradition was passed on to me by my teacher Georges Mathias who himself studied it with Chopin, and it seems to me that the metronome marking would correspond better to a bar at 4/8 than to the 2/4 time indicated. I played it at 52 to the quaver…’ So, in his recording it is fascinating to hear Pugno practise what he preaches. During the November sessions Pugno accompanied a singer, Maria Gay (1879–1945) whom he had met on a tour of Spain. She recorded some Bizet and Saint-Saëns as well as one of Pugno’s own songs but her voice, although she had some lessons at Pugno’s expense in Paris, betrays its untrained origins.
Pugno’s discs, of a pianist trained in the mid-nineteenth century, are among the best of the earliest piano recordings we have.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).