Jeremy Lee writes
Not many people have heard of the pianist Jean-Rodolphe Kars, who incidentally is still alive and well at the age of 67. An Indian-born pianist of French origin, Kars won fourth place in the 1966 Leeds Piano Competition at the age of 19 and won the Concours de Piano Olivier Messiaen in 1968. During the late 1960s and early 1970s Kars recorded some Liszt, Debussy, Delius, Messiaen and Schoenberg on Decca and EMI (including these discs under review here), and judging by the quality of the playing here I have no doubt whatsoever that, had Kars continued his career as a pianist, he would have attained somewhat of a cult status today. But it was not to be: Kars was so fascinated by the music of Olivier Messiaen and studied his music so deeply that Kars converted to Catholicism and eventually curtailed his career as a concert pianist and entered the priesthood, becoming Père Jean-Rodolphe Kars. (If you have obtained this disc and wish to have his autograph you might want to try finding him in Paray-le-Monial, France, where he remains Chaplain.)
No doubt Kars was a deeply spiritual man, and his playing also bears a deeply spiritual quality. Nothing here is overtly flashily played; everything is understated yet so naturally flowing and musically phrased. In the Debussy he generally chooses slower tempi than the norm, but he sustains the tension very well with his impeccably sensitive touch and laser-like concentration. In the highly abstract and hypnotizing Brouillards in Book II, or the massive La cathedrale engloutie in Book I, under Kars’ hands the music unfolds patiently and yet so magnetically that one is absolutely drawn in, compelled to listen: I daresay that these renditions are by far the most dreamlike and atmospheric I have heard.
What is more, Kars brings out intricate colors from Debussy’s writing through a wide range of articulation and highly variegated touch that is always fluid and luminous while eschewing the slightly metallic edge of Michelangeli or Zimerman. This works wonders in Book I’s La fille aux cheveux de lin as well as its Book II counterpart Bruyères, but is heard to best effect in Feux d’Artifices: observe how Kars punctuates the murmuring middle-register repeated figures with some spiky staccato octaves, and may I also draw your attention to the fluid middle section in which he executes those arpeggios with harp-like sonority and cascading colors. Not as daring or dramatic as Zimerman’s, perhaps, but to my ears more sensitive and more musical.
But Kars is much more than a mere colorist. In the more dance-like pieces such as Minstrels from Book I or General Lavine or La puerta del vino Kars captures the swagger and kick of the music very well, much more successfully than the recent Aimard recording. The apparent ease in his playing of the more technically challenging numbers such as Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest in Book I and Feux d’Artifices, and especially the etude-like Les tierces alternées in Book II, all points to an extraordinary. And whatever drama he may lack in the Debussy he certainly gives in the Régard de l’Esprit de joie (No. 10 of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards). It’s a hair-raising performance, bearing intensely fervent outer sections and a glorious middle section that almost grinds to a halt: I can imagine that what Kars was thinking of here was much more than a grand piano but an organ, all stops out–or even a full-sized symphony orchestra.
The other pieces: Messiaen’s Régard du silence (No. 17 from Vingt Regards) and Le merle bleu from Catalog d’Oiseaux, as well as Debussy’s Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra, need no special mention as they are as convincingly and consistently played. The sonics are full-bodied and very resonant which suits Kars’ interpretation very well. This is an indispensable album, both as great performances of the respective works (in fact I would say that the books of Préludes are probably my favorite complete set), and as a splendid testament to this great yet sadly neglected pianist.
- Album name: Debussy: Préludes Books I and II; Fantasie; Messiaen: Régard de l’Esprit de joie; Régard du silence; Le merle bleu
- Performers: Jean-Rodolphe Kars (piano); Fantasie: Alexander Gibson (conductor); London Symphony Orchestra
- Label: Decca Eloquence 480 6576
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 2:20:58