If, as pianist Daniel Grimwood has suggested, it is true that “it is hard to name another composer who enjoys such renown in his homeland yet such neglect elsewhere” and that this is allegedly because “his sound-world…is so Gallic that any listener without French sensibilities will fail to see his artistic landscape”, he is right to call nonsense on that theory: “That’s like saying that only an Italian can appreciate a bottle of Amarone.” (Grimwood’s thoughts arose as he prepared his own Fauré recording—the Nocturnes—in 2014). The ways composers become big in one place but not another are more intricate than that, indeed. However, if any one recording was needed to convince more—any—listenersRead more of the internationally appreciable gorgeousness of Gabriel Fauré’s piano music, then this recital is it! The pianist is Nicolas Stavy whose career (just like Fauré’s?) never quite took off internationally, but as a one-time protégé of pedagogue Dominique Merlet’s he comes out of a notable teaching stable that also has produced artists like Jean-Marc Luisada, Philippe Cassard, and François-Frédéric Guy.
The recording succeeds on all fronts: First, in the selection of the music, where Stavy assembles some of the juiciest bits in Fauré’s output and couples them with unheard-of pieces (two first-ever recordings of hitherto unpublished youthful works) for a perfect amount of variety. Second, in the performances themselves, where Stavy’s style of approach—let’s call it “muscular romanticism”—gives works that are sometimes only superficially beautiful an undercurrent à la Debussy. The swaying “barcarolle” aspect to much of Fauré’s music comes out beautifully in the perfectly judged agogics and rubato, further aided by sensual brawn. And finally it succeeds with the recorded sound, which is clear, neutral, natural, and at a good, middle distance from the piano (you neither have your head jammed in under the lid nor do you sit alone in a vast hall with the pianist) in an acoustic that’s neither dry nor wet.
It’s really a series of highlights, but special mention must be made of the opening E-flat minor Nocturne Op.33/1 where you are presented with the black surface of lightly swaying waters glittering back at you. The slight hesitations Stavy employs keep the music from getting ahead of itself in which case it would sound involuntarily rushed. Here, as throughout, Stavy manages plenty of sweetness but never dips into sentimentalism.
By way of the early-but-exquisite Three Romances Without Words (Gallic Mendelssohn galore; the third Romance is just to die for [sound clip]) we arrive at one of those premieres, a sonata from the same year (1863) as said Romances. Yet it sounds nothing like the rest of Fauré. Instead, it sounds as if he had been given the task of writing a classical sonata “in the style of Mozart and friends”. It’s uncanny how close Fauré comes (sound clip)! The second-movement minuet, as Jean-Pierre Bartoli, the editor of the manuscript for the new critical Bärenreiter edition, points out in a fine booklet, moves in the direction of Beethoven while the playful finale toys with the spirit of Haydn. It might be a student’s trial work in atypical style, but that doesn’t make this cross of Viennese classicism any less attractive.
The “Mazurke” or “Morceau de piano en forme de mazurka”, the other premiere, brings us right back to the beguiling Fauré we just got to know in the Romances. This spells out the way for the remaining two Nocturnes—the popular Sixth and the late, pointillist Thirteenth—and the concluding Ballade Op. 19. Stavy keeps the right distance between adding depth and being overly contemplative, placing Fauré closer to Debussy than Satie. That makes this release an ideal primer for Fauré newcomers and an ideal confirmation of excellence for sworn Fauré fans.