For his first appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series Sunday afternoon, Geoffrey Burleson (BM Peabody Conservatory, MM New England Conservatory, DM SUNY-Stony Brook) offered “French Connections: Le jeu perlé” that featuring works by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), composers whose lives spanned the century of what might be called the golden age of French pianist-composers. Le jeu perlé describes what is known today as the “French style.” The expression derives from a description of Frédéric Chopin’s touch: “like pearls on velvet,” because the notes are crystal-clear and the general sense is smoothness and softness – Chopin played mostly at mezzo-forte or quieter. It is intimately connected to the instruments built by the two major French makers, Érard (founded 1780) and Pleyel (founded 1807), now alas both essentially defunct. Those instruments, especially before the 20th century, have slightly narrower keys, with shallower depth of descent, and can therefore be played with less force and stretch of the fingers. Also, the notes decay more quickly because the damper system is also somewhat different, which keeps them clear, distinct, and unmuddied.
Burleson chose the Collection’s 1877 Érard extra-grand modèle de concert; you can find details about this instrument in an earlier review [here]. Designed for a large concert hall (not the venue in which most of this music was premièred or performed when it was written), it is the firm’s largest and most impressive model, one that can easily hold its own against a modern concert grand while being played in the French manner. This way is also very physically restrained, the sound produced entirely by the wrists, hands and fingers, and very little movement of the arms and body. All photographs of Saint-Saëns at a keyboard show him ramrod-straight with upper arms extending pretty much straight down. (It is not at all the method taught in this country, which derives from the Austro-German Romantic school of performance that dramatically engages the entire body.)
For the first half of his program Burleson chose representative selections from three Saint-Saëns works: the first three of the six pieces in his Album, Op. 72 (1884), to open, followed by the last of the Six Bagatelles, Op. 3 (1855), and ending with five of the six Études, Op. 52 (1866). The Op. 3 follow those by Beethoven that he wrote toward the end of his life. Saint-Saëns was a prodigy; at 11 he gave his first full-length recital (everything from memory, of course) in the Salle Pleyel (a Pleyel was the only piano he ever owned; the present, 1920s-era, Salle Pleyel is a larger hall not in the same location). In this debut the boy offered as an encore any of Beethoven’s piano sonatas requested, from memory; it should not be a surprise that he started his piano compositional career where Beethoven ended his.
The second of the Album pieces is a Carillon, showing that it is simply not possible to obtain a sound suggesting church bells on a modern Steinway as suggestively as upon an Érard. The third piece is a Toccata, bringing to mind the form familiar in the music of Bach, and also Ravel (the last movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin). Indeed, the Album is organized like a Baroque suite, opening with a Prélude and closing with a Final, and while it was nice to hear selections, the whole would have been more satisfying.
In comments before the bagatelle, Burleson talked about the variety in styles among Saint-Saëns’ pieces, from conservatively sticking to the past to more exploratory, for example the Carillon, which is in 7/4 and uses chromatic scales. He also described himself as obsessive-compulsive about the composer, a good thing because the music is underplayed and under-recorded (Burleson is recording all of it; 3 volumes of 5 are available). Saint-Saëns’s piano music in particular has the reputation of being fluff, but it is not, and carefully crafted and challenging to execute. The Op. 52 Études, the first of three sets of six each (vol. 1 of Burleson’s set offers them all), demonstrates this in spades. It too is compiled something like a Baroque suite, opening with a Prélude and closing with an Étude en forme de valse, this last being one of the few pieces heard occasionally. It is actually a set of eight pieces disguised as six, because 3 and 4 are both Préludes followed by Fugues in the same keys (f and a minor respectively; the latter was omitted). Who but the virtuoso player Saint-Saëns would write études in a form that comprises two others? There are elements of the concluding étude that foreshadow Ravel’s La Valse 50 years later. Burleson talked about and demonstrated some of the challenging portions of a couple of the études before executing them — dazzlingly.
But that word should not be misunderstood: there was virtually no impressive physical display during the recital. All display was in the controlled and intense concentration on the production of extraordinary sound, with Burleson keeping his hands close to the keys, nuancing the dynamics, pedaling discretely. He did not sit ramrod-straight like his hero, but he was not bent over like Glenn Gould either. Only a couple of times did he end with a flourish, lifting his hand from the keyboard as if he had burned himself, as Chopin was reported to have asked his students concerning such gestures.
After the pause, we heard Burleson’s rendering of Ravel’s 1908 Gaspard de la Nuit, a three-movement work inspired by poems in the book of that title by Aloysius (nom de plume for Louis) Bertrand, brought out posthumously in 1842, the first book of prose poems in French ever published. Ondine is from the main body of the book that subdivides into six sections; Le gibet and Scarbo are from a group of separate pieces at its end. The subtitle of the book is Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot, so the poems are intended to evoke images resembling paintings, and Ravel is attempting to do so musically. The texts are printed at the head of the scores and Ravel wanted them printed in the program. Burleson did not speak about the work, nor were the texts available. It was, however, a good choice as a bookend, because the tolling bell of Le gibet recalled the carillon earlier, and it calls for virtuosic sound production somewhat similar to that called for in the Études.
Coincidentally, in March I heard an impressive performance of this work by UMass-Amherst piano professor Gilles Vonsattel on the Bezanson Recital Hall’s Steinway D, a recital still fresh enough in mind to be able to compare. Vonsattel made the Steinway sound somewhat like a harpsichord, not an easy task and easier to do on a French piano, and Ravel, who owned an Érard, was consciously following in French Baroque harpsichordists’ footsteps, le jeu perlé even for impressionistic imagery. The Steinway came across as crisper, brighter, and less smooth than the 1877 Érard under Burleson’s fingers; its sound is warmer, so Vonsattel painted flashier pictures. Burleson, though, captures le jeu perlé better than anyone else I have ever heard or seen. The manner forces us listeners to focus on music and sound, not on the player, which after all is what these pianist-composers wanted.