As a child, Ousset studied with Marcel Ciampi at the Paris Conservatoire where she obtained a premier prix at the age of fourteen. Of Ciampi’s teaching Ousset has said, ‘My training was Russian rather than French based. Ciampi’s method was modelled on Anton Rubinstein’s, with emphasis on strong fingers but free shoulders for optimum precision and power. I went to him aged eight with bent fingers in the classic French style. He was horrified…’.
Three years after winning her premier prix Ousset won the first of her many competition prizes at the Claire Pagès Competition. Her placing of fourth at the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition led disgruntled jury member Arthur Rubinstein to arrange some early recitals in Paris for Ousset, where she made her professional debut at the Salle Gaveau. At the Geneva Competition and the Busoni Competition Ousset was co-winner of the second prize where no first prize was given. Although she then performed with many French orchestras, it was not until the early 1980s that Ousset’s career really took off. The turning point was at the 1980 Edinburgh Festival where she replaced an indisposed Martha Argerich at short notice. After this, Ousset was in continual demand worldwide.
Although a London appearance was reviewed as her debut in 1975, Ousset had in fact given a recital at the Wigmore Hall in April 1962, and also appeared at the same venue in 1969 as accompanist to cellist Bernard Michelin when ‘…the evening’s pleasure was every bit as much due to what emanated from the keyboard.’ At Ousset’s reported 1975 London debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall she played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111, Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie Op. 3, Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini Op. 35 and assorted solo works by French composers. It was reviewed as ‘…a recital in which the most distinctive personal charm was superbly balanced by the most masterful coherence.’
After her debuts in Britain and America, Ousset played with many of the world’s greatest orchestras in Europe, Russia, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan and South Africa. She has worked regularly with conductor Kurt Masur and in Britain with Simon Rattle of whom in 1985 she prophetically remarked, ‘I’m sure he has a terrific future.’
Ousset is often described as a strong and powerful player. She relished tackling the largest works of the Romantic repertoire by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Saint-Saëns; but also played Messiaen and Dutilleux, and earlier in her career played Mozart and Beethoven. She liked to learn a major new work each year and in doing so built up a large repertoire. During the 1980s and 1990s Ousset worked incessantly, in 1987 giving five recitals of French music at London’s Barbican, but in 2001 she decided to retire from the concert platform due to back problems. She still enjoys sitting on juries of piano competitions worldwide and giving master-classes.
It is surprising to find that Ousset, with her array of competition prizes, was not approached by a record company until she was twenty-nine years old. Eterna in Germany released just one LP, of music by Mozart, only in Germany. Six years later, in 1971, Ousset began to record for Decca in France. Three discs were issued in the UK, one a French recital, another a disc of Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini Op. 35, and one of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83 with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (which won a Grand Prix du Disque). A five-LP set of Beethoven’s complete variations was not released outside France, nor was an LP of Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie Op. 3 and Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces Op. 12. Cambridge Records in Britain issued an LP of a Chopin recital in 1981 which included the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35 and the Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52.
Ousset began an association with EMI in 1982, in the following eight years recording a large quantity of music. Of the concerto repertoire her first disc was a great success; it coupled Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 with Simon Rattle as conductor. For Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 and Poulenc’s Piano Concerto Ousset was joined by Rudolf Barshai. In Grieg and Mendelssohn she played with the London Symphony Orchestra and Neville Marriner, and for Tchaikovsky and Schumann worked again with her long-time friend Kurt Masur. For both Ravel concertos, and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43, Ousset was partnered once more with one of her favourite conductors, Simon Rattle. Even while recording and performing so much, Ousset was learning new repertoire all the time. She tells a story of agreeing to perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30, only allowing three months in which to learn it. It was a stressful ordeal, and the toll taken by constantly learning and recording new works is sometimes evident in her discs. Many works take years to be absorbed and assimilated, and in recordings such as Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 36, Ousset does sound as if she has recently learnt the work and not become fully ‘at one’ with it.
Of the solo recordings, a disc coupling Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was Ousset’s first for EMI and one reviewer commented on her playing of Scarbo, noting that ‘…the complete ease and relaxation with which Ousset throws off its exorbitant difficulties is amazing.’ EMI then had her record a fair amount of French repertoire, including a disc of short pieces by French composers, Debussy’s complete préludes, Pour le piano, L’Isle joyeuse, Images, Arabesques and the Suite Bergamasque. While certain of the préludes are impressive, such as Feux d’artifice and Minstrels, critics found the set rather heavy-footed and rigid. Ravel was represented by the Valses nobles et sentimentales, the Sonatine, Jeux d’eau and shorter pieces, but the best of the Ravel recordings is of Miroirs.
In the mid 1980s Ousset recorded Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Grande Études de Paganini, and in the late 1980s recorded both of Chopin’s piano sonatas, the complete ballades and complete scherzos. The first movement of the Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35 has an ebb and flow of tempo, the scherzo an underlying darkness and menace, the Marche funèbre is more pathétique than histrionic, and the finale displays Ousset’s clarity even if the tempo is not presto. The Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58 is equally fine and forthright in its interpretation with an extremely strong and heroic first movement and a last movement that is cohesive, dramatic and exciting.
While there is much to admire in Ousset’s recordings of the French repertoire and Chopin, in the more overtly Romantic works she uses deliberate, rigid tempos resulting in stolid performances which can lack excitement and tension. However, at its best her playing is delivered with a musical intelligence and good taste.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).