François told various versions of his early years, so it is not easy to discern what the real truth is. Indeed, when he was rebuked by a friend for his lying François replied, ‘I am not lying, I am living out my imagination.’ It would appear that his father was working at the French Consulate in Frankfurt at the time Samson was born. His father recognised the talent of his young son and enrolled him at the Belgrade Conservatory where he studied piano with Ciril Licar. The father seems to have had a rather itinerant lifestyle and by 1933 the family had moved to Lyons and thence to Nice. They were in financial difficulties, but Samson’s father enrolled his gifted son at the Nice Conservatoire where he won the first prize at the age of eleven.
It was then decided that young Samson should play for Alfred Cortot when he visited Nice on a concert tour during 1935. Cortot was impressed, and realising that the family was in dire financial straits, agreed to accept the boy into his École Normale de Musique in Paris without a fee. However, Cortot did not teach François himself, but assigned his studies to Yvonne Lefébure. Up to that point in his life François had played instinctively, and it was quite a task to discipline the waywardly talented boy. Samson’s father decided that the boy could earn much-needed money for the family, but a concert tour he planned for 1936 was abandoned as the father died suddenly from a heart attack. François then auditioned for a place at the Paris Conservatoire where he joined the class of the formidable Marguerite Long. She had to tame his already wilful nature and reminded François years later that he was the only pupil she had had to slap. ‘Madame, it was a privilege to be the only one,’ he replied. François left the Conservatoire in 1940 but the restrictions of wartime France made the starting of a career very difficult. Lefébure introduced him to influential and well-placed friends and he played a few concerts in Paris and Lyons.
At the age of nineteen François won first prize at the first Marguerite Long–Jacques Thibaud Competition, but by the end of World War II he had fallen into a habit of frequenting bars, drinking all night and sleeping into the afternoon of the following day. He did, however, still work at the piano and was engaged by many of the French orchestras, although some conductors found his wayward approach during a concert unacceptable and would not work with him again. In 1947 after giving concerts in Germany, France, Holland and North Africa, François toured North America where he played sixteen concerts including a celebrated performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Although he had played in London at the Institute Française in 1945, François’s London debut was in May 1949 at the Wigmore Hall. One critic praised his ‘formidable technique, keen awareness of tone-colour and imagination’, but went on to comment that François’s imagination was his worst enemy, ‘…for it runs away with him and leads him to exaggerate dynamic contrasts, rubato, and many other things too, with the result that his interpretations lack poise.’
From the early 1950s François’s drinking became a problem. He was drawn to the darker side of things including the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and his extravagant lifestyle and irresponsible habits led to performances that were given when he was not in a fit state to play. The remainder of the 1950s and 1960s were spent recording and touring, but his lifestyle affected his wellbeing, and tours of Russia and China became physically demanding. He did not take his health seriously and even though viral hepatitis was diagnosed in 1959, he continued his intake of whisky and cigarettes unabated. In October 1970 he was taken ill, and died a few hours later in hospital.
Between 1953 and his death François recorded a large amount of music for French EMI. He recorded most of the works of Chopin, Ravel (1966–1967) and Debussy (from 1968), although he was in the process of recording the complete works of Debussy when he died, so this project remains unfinished. His earliest recording from 1947 is of Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit which nearly won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1949 but was beaten in the end by Dinu Lipatti’s recording of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58. François gives a fantastical performance full of the diabolical scratchings of the Bertrand poem. At the same time whilst in London he recorded Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23 for Decca/Brunswick. Another superlative recording is of the Ravel piano concertos with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and André Cluytens; this is still one of the best versions available of these concertos.
François’s temperament and nature led to performances and recordings that were often uneven and the better recordings are the ones made in the 1950s. Of his Chopin recordings, the four ballades recorded in 1954 are among the best, but some of the nocturnes sound uninspired and wooden. François never made his mark in America, and outside of France he was known mainly for his interpretations of Chopin and French music; but his repertoire was much wider and he recorded works by Prokofiev, including the Piano Concertos Nos 3 and 5 and the Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 83, Bartók, Scriabin, Hindemith, Franck, and Schumann. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Op. 55 is particularly fine, with François melding Gallic wit to Prokofiev’s sarcasm. One of François’s earliest recordings, made in 1953, was of his own Piano Concerto. He recorded little chamber music, but in the late 1960s recorded Fauré’s Piano Quartet Op. 15, and two months before he died recorded the Piano Quintet in F minor with the Quatour Bernède. Whilst in London in 1960, François recorded both Liszt piano concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Constantin Silvestri. The performance of the Concerto No. 1 is spontaneous and exciting, grand and dramatic, and deserves to be a far more familiar recording of this work.
Mention should also be made of a limited edition set of thirty-four compact discs of François’s complete EMI recordings that was issued in 1995. It also includes many live performances that were recorded by EMI.
To gain a fair impression of François’s talent, a wide range of his recorded repertoire needs to be assessed. It then becomes apparent that he was a talented musician and pianist who, although he often relied too much on his innate abilities, was, at his best, one of the finest of his generation.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).