Top Ear

Samson François: the greatest Ravelist you’ve never heard of

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Jeremy Lee writes

Samson François as a name never reached the “legendary” status of great pianists of his time such as Richter or Gulda, but as a musician he was sensational, and many of his recordings, such as the complete works of Chopin, uphold that praise–in fact if he didn’t die at such a young age, he quite possibly would have achieved a “cult” status today. His approach to many pieces was quite variable, even unorthodox at times, but always interpretatively valid and immensely enjoyable.

This 1959 Ravel G major concerto performance is regarded as one of the best the work has ever received, comparable, at least, to the “benchmarks” set by Zimerman, Argerich and Michelangeli. François’ reading is always witty and bubbly, and in some reflective places (such as the F sharp major passage in the first movement in which the piano goes unaccompanied for the first time) his more rhapsodic and volatile approach bears its own merits. François also opts for lesser pedal in the cadenza and other filigree fingerwork which clears up the textures somewhat and lets his immaculate touch come to exposure, although one could wish for Argerich’s velocity and excitement and of course Michelangeli’s disarming precision and clarity. In the slow movement Francois is suave and sensitive, and he pulls all stops out in the last movement, delivering a performance of vivacity and colour.

The G major concerto is inevitably followed by the Left Hand Concerto, and at the onset I must say that even though I am not very familiar with the piece, François delivers an engaging performance all the same, with a very military-esque 12/8 section in the middle. The orchestra directed by Cluytens is very fine. Following this are two solo pieces, first of which is the Valses nobles et sentimentales, in which François plays most handsomely, and then the monumental Gaspard de la Nuit.

Both Michelangeli and Argerich have played it, and both have their merits, namely the former’s inhuman control of the keyboard such as in the rapid repeated chords in the Ondine, and Argerich’s thrilling sweep in the Scarbo. François manages to deliver a compelling reading, and although it might lack the stamp of individuality of the readings specified above, it is dignified and well worth hearing–Le Gibet has rarely ever sounded spookier.

This issue on the new EMI Masters series benefits from great sound, some even remastered by EMI Music Japan (Japanese-import quality a la Exton? You don’t say…), and is very inexpensive. In all, this release deserves nothing less than my high recommendation.

Details

  • Album name:  Ravel:  Piano Concertos; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit
  • Performers:  Samson François(piano); André Cluytens (conductor); Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire
  • Label:  EMI 50999 6 78318 2 1
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  77:22
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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