Marcelle Meyer Plays Chabrier & Debussy

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CHABRIER: Habanera. Bourée Fantasque. Joyeuse Marche. 10 Pièces Pittoresques. 5 Morceaux. Impromptu in C. Air de Ballet. DEBUSSY: Préludes, Books I & II / Marcelle Meyer, pno / Urania WS 121.384

Pianist Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958) was one of those fortunate few who happened to be in the right place at the right time. She studied piano with both Maurice Ravel and Alfred Cortot, giving her a direct connection to one of the great impressionist composers of her day as well as the greatest French pianist in the first half of the 20th century; then, at age 14, she was introduced to Claude Debussy, perhaps the seminal impressionist composer (though Debussy detested that term), who greatly admired her playing and encouraged her to play his works in public. Four years later, she gave the world premiere performance of Debussy’s complete Préludes to the enthusiastic delight of the composer. Debussy introduced her to Erik Satie, who also admired her playing of his works: at age 20, she played the premiere of his Parade. After World War I, she became the favored pianist of that group of French composers known as Les Six; she accompanied mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori in several recitals and, for all I know, also accompanied the now-forgotten baritone Eugene Berton, another favorite singer of Les Six. Thus by the time she was 23 years old, Meyer had a wealth of training and experience that were the envy of many other pianists.

MarcelleAlthough Meyer made some records on 78-rpm discs in 1925 and in the late 1940s, most of her output dates from the 1950s. She recorded some standard fare—Chopin, Mozart, Rameau, Scarlatti—but her most highly-prized discs are her recordings of French music, particularly Ravel and Debussy but also an album of the music of Chabrier. All were made for a small specialty label, Les Discophiles Francais (LDF), run by her friend, recording engineer and audio pioneer André Charlin. In 1949, Charlin produced the first European microgroove vinyl record, in 1958 a stereo recording technique, and in 1963–64 patented the Tete Charlin, a dummy head for commercial stereophonic records using two high-quality Schoeps microphones. He also co-founded Erato Records. Ironically, however, LDS ceased to exist the same year that Meyer died (1958), with the masters later sold to EMI France.

This two-disc set resuscitates her Chabrier and Debussy recordings. The sound is clean and clear; you can almost hear the sound of the keys being depressed on the keyboard and the felt-covered hammers striking the strings of her piano. This may not have been the ideal way of recording a pianist who was a Cortot pupil since both pianists had a rich, deep-in-the-keys manner of playing, but it’s certainly better than trying to hear how she “really” played the piano from her 1925 recordings. My judgment was that she had a slightly softer approach to music than Cortot, but not by much: there is great tensile strength in her performances, and she was clearly a musician who understood the structure of the music she played. Like Cortot, she adopted the German manner of slightly pressing the beat forward at all times in order to clarify the structure, and if she did not quite equal him as a colorist (but again, this may be due to microphone placement) she clearly played with much more color than most modern pianists. (I would say “all,” but there are some outstanding pianists still out there, among them Michael Korstick, Giorgio Koukl, Janina Gerl and Joanna MacGregor, who also play with a good sense of color) and thus gave us the best of both worlds in French music particularly. I strongly urge you to listen to Meyer play this music and that of Ravel to gain an understanding of how most of those early-20th-century French composers wanted their music to sound. It has strength but does not pound the keyboard the way Martha Argerich and Idil Biret do. Her playing has both form and “soul.”

This, I think, may be more important in the music of Chabrier, a composer she clearly could not have known since he died three years before she was born but who was considered a fine composer by the more modern ones she knew. (Even Satie, who liked very little music besides his own, had nice things to say of Chabrier.) Despite her somewhat softer touch, Meyer gives us no-nonsense, non-Romantic Chabrier, and this is a quality we hear again in her performances of Ravel and Debussy. In short, there are things in her approach that strike us as modern rather than old-school. Small wonder that she was admired by the more advanced French composers of her day. For those of you taking notes, this is what “historically-informed performance” really sounds like. It wasn’t at all as we hear so many modern French pianists, such as Jean-Yves Thibaudet or Jean-Efflam Bevouzet, play French music nowadays—a style hailed by critics, mostly British, as quintessentially French when in fact it is only quintessentially Romantic French and not at all appropriate in Debussy or Ravel. How many years have I been insisting that such pianists as Gieseking, Benedetti and Korstick gave us Debussy in the proper style? Or that, at the very least, one should listen to Debussy’s own recordings to understand how he wanted his music to go? FYI, Debussy also played his own music in a more linear and direct, but well-colored, style that neither Thibaudet nor Bevouzet understand. (Similarly, Anne Queffélec is one of the few modern-day French pianists who really understand how to play Satie.) Listen, for instance, to the way Meyer plays Chabrier’s “Danse villageoise” from his 10 Pièces pittoresques for a perfect example of what I mean. The playing is crisp and clean, with none of that lingering nonsense we constantly hear from Thibaudet or Bavouzet, yet Meyer provides a half-dozen different dynamic shades in the middle section. Subtlety, folks, not an exaggerated dragging out of your intent.

In fact, I would compare Meyer more closely to Gieseking than Cortot, which is not bad, merely different. By the way, another thing that makes her playing sound less rich than I think she really played is the instrument she uses. It has a crisp sound, one might say closer to a Baldwin than to a Steinway grand or a Bösendorfer (the most beautiful-sounding piano in the world).

I’m sure that many listeners will dislike her performances of the Debussy Préludes, claiming that they sound “rushed.” They certainly bear no resemblance to the way Thibaudet or Bavouzet play them, but her performances of “Danseuses de Delphes,” “Le vent dans de plaine,” “La cathedral engloutie” and “Minstrels” are remarkably similar to the way Debussy recorded them.

If I have any complaint about this release, it is that the sound quality remains somewhat boxy and dry. A little judicious treble boost and a bit of reverb would work wonders for these old recordings, but just having them is a treat in itself. Viva la Marcelle!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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