FAURÉ: Nocturnes: No. 1 in e-flat min.; No. 7 in c-sharp min.; No. 13 in b min. Barcarolles: No. 3 in G-flat; No. 12 in E-flat. Thème et Variations en c-sharp min. Impromptu No. 5 in f-sharp min. 9 Préludes, Op. 103. Romance sans Paroles in A-flat, Op. 17 No. 3 / Hannes Minnaar, pianist / Challenge Classics CC72731 (CD & DVD: the DVD contains the same program as the CD plus a concert registration)
I have to be honest: I didn’t approach listening to this album with a high degree of expectation, not because I didn’t like the music of Gabriel Fauré but because I didn’t know the playing of pianist Hannes Minnaar at all and thus didn’t expect much. Why? Not because I was pre-judging Minnaar but because I know from long and bitter experience that too many modern pianists come to the music of late Romantics with a completely Objectivist approach, which generally means brisk tempi and clean playing but absolutely no feeling. Or, which is worse, they come to it with a desire to be too mooshy-gooshy romantic, which absolutely kills the music.
For me, Fauré was one of those unusual late Romantics whose music cries out for a rare balance of feeling and coolness. His famous Requiem is perhaps the most noted example of his art, and it, too, seldom receives the kind of performances it deserves. But pianist Minnaar, as it turns out, is a gem of an artist. He understands Fauré’s unusual aesthetic to the hilt; he knows how to balance the cleanliness of his digital articulation with a combination of delicacy and straightforwardness, how to introduce subtle moments of rubato and when not to, and in the end he produces a very satisfying recital of this composer’s piano music.
Yes, there were a few moments when I wished Minnaar would have pulled back a bit on the headlong tempo and give a shade more relaxation to the music, but not many. For the most part he maintains a firm grasp on the music’s structure, and that in itself compensates for much in the way of its unfolding structure. A good example of both things is his performance of the Barcarolle No. 3. Minnaar keeps everything in control and reveals the music’s underlying structure splendidly, yet at times I wished he would have relaxed just a bit on the tempo to provide a more barcarolle-like feeling. Still, what one hears is valid and there are indeed subtle touches here and there that let you know that Minnaar is indeed thinking about the music he plays.
A perfect example of what I mean is the Thème et Variations en c-sharp minor that immediately follows the Barcarolle. Here, Minnaar shows us why he is so well suited to playing his music, alternating his straightforward and poetic styles in turn as the music demands. Were he to play the entire series of variations as he played the dreamy opening theme, we would quickly lose interest, but he keeps us involved by keeping himself involved. Interestingly, the pianist almost draws out a Russian feeling in the sixth variation, marked “Molto più moderato.” Minnaar also has plenty of sensitivity for the Nocturnes, which are exquisitely fashioned as if cut delicately out of lace. There are also a few hints of Debussy in this piece.
The Nine Preludes of 1910-11 show that the mature Fauré was virtually unchanged in either form or harmonic use, but they are charming pieces, well played. The Nocturne in B minor is a very late piece (1921) and less dreamy than the earlier Nocturne on this disc. Minnaar’s recital ends with the Romance sans paroles, a charming salon-type piece.
This is a fine representation of Fauré’s piano music for those who like it, and I recommend it as such.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley