FAURE: Theme et Variations in C-sharp Minor; Valse-Caprice No. 1 in A; Valse-Caprice No. 2 in D-flat Major; Nocturne No. 5 in B-flat Major; Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major; Nocturne No. 13 in B Minor; Ballade – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion

by | Oct 4, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

FAURE: Theme et Variations in C-sharp Minor, Op. 73; Valse-Caprice No. 1 in A, Op. 30; Valse-Caprice No. 2 in D-flat Major, Op. 38; Nocturne No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 37; Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63; Nocturne No. 13 in B Minor, Op. 119; Ballade for Solo Piano, Op. 19 – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion CDA67875, 72:51 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

“For me, art and especially music, exists to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.” – Gabriel Faure

Pianist Angel Hewitt invites us to partake of Gabriel Faure’s rarified musical world, having recorded on her Fazioli instrument (11—14 August 2012) a series of pieces she has known from the time she studied with Jean-Paul Sevilla in Ottawa, Canada. The music of Faure, with its modal language rife with shifting harmonies and often serpentine melodic contours, takes as its basis such diverse elements as Gregorian chant, Bach organ sonority, French chanson, Chopin, and Massenet. While Faure projects an intimate salon ethos, he likewise resonates with large masses of piano sound that exploit the power of both hands. Both boisterous and tender, Faure’s music occasionally rises up in the manner of a Romantic chorale, august and nostalgic at once.

Much admired by Camille Saint-Saens, the Valse-Caprices (1882-1884) move fleetingly and graciously, an often boisterous combination of Chabrier and J. Strauss, passing the melody between the hands. The right hand cascades in the A Major reveal the transparency of Hewitt’s touch. The D-flat Major opens with anticipations of Poulenc as well as nods to Liszt. The C-sharp Minor middle section indulges in some agogic variation and harmonic movement that captivate the imagination, the rhetoric flavored by Chopin.

Each of the three Nocturnes comes from a distinct period in Faure’s development: youth, maturity, and old age. The expansive B-flat Major Nocturne (1884) immediately combines B-flat Major and D Major, modulating in its stormy middle section to B Minor. While Chopin may lurk in the shadows, the modal progressions belong to Faure, who occasionally invokes swirls of arpeggios reminiscent of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie. The best-known Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major (1894) conveys a rarified ecstasy, touched by intimations of Wagner. The B Minor Nocturne, Op. 119 (1921) reveals the astounding economy of Faure’s late style. Bach augmented by bold dissonances sets the initial tone, then moving in thirds much like late Brahms. Rather suddenly, the texture becomes thicker, like a Liszt or Franck version of a Bach motif. The rather bleak chords that emerge may justify biographer Jessica Duchen’s claim that this Nocturne “seems to stare death straight in the face.”

I first heard the lovely 1877 Ballade in F-sharp Major in its 1881 version for piano and orchestra with Robert Casadesus and Leonard Bernstein. The piece conveys in three themes lyrical tenderness and aristocratic refinement, hued by Faure’s especial gift for counterpoint. The piece moves to an Allegretto section in E-flat Minor. The “ballade” motif in 4/4 comes to us in B Major. Even as Hewitt charms us with its swift and subtle modulations like the augmented sixth, we feel within the rhapsodic filigree a sense of underlying unity. Often the trills and open chords evoke bells, either an homage to Liszt or to Faure’s youthful village of Cardirac. When the piece concludes, classically enough in the home key, only the second and third themes appear.

The disc opens with Faure’s most ambitious solo keyboard work — he never ventured into a full solo sonata — his 1896 Theme et Variations, likely inspired by Faure’s fondness for Schumann’s Etude symphoniques.  From its relatively stentorian opening, the theme exploits Faure’s penchant for bass lines, proceeding through eleven variants of fascinating pedigree, ending after the most extroverted tenth variation (Allegro vivo) with a remarkable anticlimax, a gentle transition to the major.  The range of technique required for Hewitt’s smooth execution calls for her to perform double thirds and sixths in variation five. The sixth bears some affective kinship to Brahms. The ninth variation, marked Quasi adagio, does pay homage to Schumann in its rapt stillness. We might have suggested that Hewitt play the last variation, with its exquisite chorale-affect, as an encore to the entire disc.

—Gary Lemco

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