Classical Reissue Reviews

RAVEL: Piano Concerto–Two Recordings; MILHAUD: Piano Concerto No. 1; “Alfama” from Automne; Paysandu; DEBUSSY works – Marguerite Long, p./various perf. – Pristine Audio

Marguerite Long—the angel or devil of French piano music—performs Ravel, Debussy, and Milhaud in her inimitable and even ‘contradictory’ style.

Published on May 1, 2011

RAVEL: Piano Concerto–Two Recordings; MILHAUD: Piano Concerto No. 1; “Alfama” from Automne; Paysandu; DEBUSSY works – Marguerite Long, p./various perf. – Pristine Audio

RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G Major–Two Recordings; MILHAUD: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 127; “Alfama” from Automne, Op. 115, No. 2; Paysandu from, Saudades do Brasil, Op. 67; DEBUSSY: Deux Arabesques; Estampes: Jardins sous la pluie; La plus que lente–Valse – Marguerite Long, piano/Orchestre Symphonique/ Pedro de Freitas Branco/Darius Milhaud/ Paris Conservatory Orchestra/Georges Tzipine (Ravel, 1952)

Pristine Audio PASC 285, 72:56 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Marguerite Long (1874-1966) remains a controversial figure in French pianism, a person of admittedly strong powers as a technician and pedagogue, but no less an opportunist and manipulator who wished to be known as the greatest of French keyboard artists and the distinctly individual interpreter of the music of Faure and Ravel. The 1932 inscription of the Ravel Concerto in G (premiered in January 1932) had been long touted as having been led by the composer–it is now admitted that Pedro de Freitas Branco leads this performance (14 April 1932)–likely under the composer’s supervision. Despite its age, the collaboration projects fierce energy and a variety of colors that all too often escape even today’s practitioners. The tempos, rather brisk, accentuate the first movement’s jazzy contours and acoustical icon-smashing. The dry affect of Long’s extended solo part that opens the Adagio assai blends well with the orchestral timbres that accompany her in this bemused nocturne. The bassoons introduce the second subject with nasal clarity, and the two themes intertwine in delicate contrast until they merge in a potent crescendo that soon dissipates back into the wistful space of the opening motif. The brilliant toccata of the last movement Presto gallops and marches with slinky authority, often a parody of its jazz idiom. The critic Rene Dumesnil commented that Long’s performance gives us “a model of intelligence, of finesse, and of technical perfection.”

Milhaud composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marguerite Long in mind, and the inscription with the composer (6 April 1935) came soon after the first performance, led by Albert Wolff. The means of the Milhaud Concerto parallel those of Ravel in several respects, but the piece has never gained anything of the prestige of the Ravel work. Small and discreet, the concerto seems tailored to the French salon, its second movement in the style of a barcarolle presenting us an angular beauty in running scales and chromatic arpeggios. The Finale (Anime) opens with a bass-heavy melody that almost plagiarizes the last movement of Prokofiev’s C Major Concerto. Happily, Milhaud’s essentially playful nature and his love of bell-tones in the keyboard prevent any extended paraphrasing of anybody else, and he soon opts for another toccata procedure, interrupted by a dialogue between the piano and oboe, flute, and strings. The clangorous coda may not be profound, but it  proves effective.

Long recorded the two Milhaud solo works 10 May 1935. The Brazilian dance-hall seems to have inspired both pieces, cross-fertilized by Faure’s syntax and touches from Les Six. The Paysandu is the more harmonically audacious of the two pieces, although one can sense Gershwin not very far away. The music wants to tango, but the figures hesitate and break up rather moodily. The Deux Arabesques of Debussy (10 July 1930) suffer some muddiness in the shellacs, but the articulation of the E Major Arabesque and its subsequent phrasing convey sensuous elegance and rhythmic chastity. The D Major casts a fleet architecturally balanced series of phrases, measured and sober. Still, the piece enjoys an animation and lithe vitality that never lose their inherent tensile strength. The little canon that concludes the work explodes demurely, if that isn’t too much of a paradox. Jardins sous la pluie (13 November 1929) has rarely found as exquisite an interpreter as Moiseiwitsch, but Long makes her own case for its toccata status in wrist and touch articulation, aided by canny pedaling. La plus que lent (6 November 1929) moves a bit faster than slower-than-slow, but as an evocation of the fin-de-siecle sensibility, the performance works well.

Except for the last movement–in virtually the same tempo and phrasing–the second inscription of the Ravel G Major Concerto (12 June 1952) projects a broader scale of values, and it naturally enjoys an improved fidelity from its more modern sound technology. The orchestral definition benefits immeasurably; and in such a jazz-oriented score, the bluesy environment opens up like a flower finally given water and sunlight. Conductor Tzipine (1907-1987) relished the modern French school of composers, and his application of colors never ceases to charm. The last few pages of the first movement with Long and Tzipine seem to have proved a model for the later inscription by Entremont and Ormandy. Less sec and detached in her approach to the Adagio, the feeling for legato provides an alternative sentimentalized perspective to Long’s vision of this plastic music. Long openly confessed she had contradicted Ravel’s intentions here. But the last movement restores Ravel’s whirlwinds and jazzy tornadoes in full Technicolor. Did Marguerite Long really have to “bully” Ravel into giving her this music’s dedication?

– Gary Lemco




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