Notes and Editorial Reviews
Renowned for his eccentricity as well as for his piano-playing, Samson François was something of a handful. He was almost compulsively generous to his friends, especially when it came to food and drink. He was also evidently a compulsive liar—he called it using his imagination—and a drinker who looked years older than he was. (He died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 46.) His playing was cleanly executed, delicately shaded, and yet to my ears often hopelessly eccentric. In a remarkable example of self-awareness, he told an interviewer: “I am open to criticism on a number of counts, especially in my playing of Beethoven or even Schumann, because they are composers who looked for architectural structures, which I am
sure I overlook. I am looking for the curve of the melody. I try to see where a phrase is taking me. I prefer not to know what is coming next, but to discover it as I go along.” He detested bar-lines, he said, because they cut a phrase into separate bits.
Some years ago, I reviewed a 10-CD set of Samson François’s Chopin playing for EMI, and found myself becoming increasingly disturbed by his particular ways of searching for the curves of a melody. He never cut a phrase into separate bits, but in larger pieces—Chopin’s ballades, nocturnes, and the Piano Sonata included here—he seems willing to cut a piece up into bits, each beautifully rounded, perhaps, but leading towards incoherence. I found myself preferring his playing of Chopin’s shortest works, including many of the waltzes reissued on this disc. His playing of the sober Waltz in A Minor, op. 34/2, is extremely touching, even innocent. Then, in the next piece he plays, the Waltz in F, op. 34/3, he manipulates the tempos in a manner that seems merely whimsical. To my mind, the brilliance of his playing of the Sonata does not make up for the strange changes in tempos and touch. Others have found that his originality and sheer technical mastery make up for the lack of a larger vision in his playing.
As a bonus, EMI has included a televised performance made in 1964 of François playing the Ravel Concerto for Left Hand. Though the early bars, low in the strings and bassoon, were barely audible, the performance is certainly worth watching; one gets to see one-half of François’s technique. Showing his own eccentricity, commentator Pierre-Martin Juban wrote that François played with his hand, not his fingers. Well, in this black-and-white broadcast, one sees the sure, graceful movement of those spidery fingers in a performance that, for once, is neither odd nor particularly willful. In that mood, if only for a few years, François was hard to match.
FANFARE: Michael Ullman
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