Here is a fiercely committed challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet at convention, at a critical currency that continues to view Faure as a minor figure, his music safely confined within the limits of conservatism and a salon idiom. For Lucas Debargue his relationship with Faure, outlined in his stimulating accompanying essay, got off to an uneasy start, journeying from a  bleak admission('In my youth I gave Faure a fairly wide birth') as well as an initial feeling that his language was 'sleek, mechanical and occasionally opaque,' to the opposite extreme; a prime place in his consciousness, 'a constant presence in my life.' He shares such candour and confession of love with others, particularly those who, like him, took on the daunting task of recording the complete piano music For Kathleen Stott 'Faure is a composer I could never be without,' her response to the later works, in particular, turning from  bafflement to a  visceral impact that has never left her. For Paul Crossley, too, Faure is a deeply personal love, so close to his heart that he hugs him to himself, thus, 'I don't want to share him with anyone, he's mine.'

  Per contra, the doubters and disparagers are no less with us. Chief among these Debussy, his sarcastic put down, 'a master of charms' levelled at the early works, the Ballade in particular, making you wonder whether he knew the later Nocturnes and Barcarolles, the valedictory song cycles etc. For Michel Beroff Faure amounts to little beyond 'vague perfume,' while yet another pianist notes only a decline, his music effected by increasing deafness. For my one-time colleague Joan Chissell,  'a little goes a long way,' while Imogen Cooper expressed surprise at my love for the Nine Preludes which she found incomprehensible. Most remarkable of all, a German University teacher and jury colleague who scorned my suggestion that pianists in a French competition asked to play at least one work by Debussy or Ravel might also be asked to include Faure. 'If you asked any of my students to play Faure they would walk out of the room.' The battle lines are drawn up, both extreme, the one devotional, the other of a betraying ignorance.

   Lucas Debargue, a pianist with an original mind and imagination moves in on Faure like a knight in shining armour, laying about him with a vengeance. Underlining his insistence that Faure is a great rather than minor composer he chooses a piano he claims allows him to achieve a wider range of expression than would be possible on a more conventional instrument. This is his beloved opus 102, innovatory with its thundering base and splintering treble, singular in its brilliant ringing, crystalline sound and providing a clear response to Faure's hope that one day a pianist might play him 'without the shutters down.' But if the intention is admirable the result is mixed, with Faure's subtlety too often chivied into submission. This is notably true of the First Barcarolle, which cries out for gentler more loving hands. There is boldness to the point of brashness in the mercurial Valses-caprices, in their alternation of rumbustious humour and air-spun flights. Again, why is the central section of the Second Impromptu tossed aside so indifferently? A few bars of Eileen Joyce's legendary 1942 recording or Germaine Thyssen-Valentin's fifties discs (less dextrous but no less illuminating) tells you what is missing. Debargue is more coaxing in the richly ornate Second Nocturne but seems impatient and out of sorts with the insinuating climbs of the Third, the reverse of those tortured ascents in the later Nocturnes and Barcarolles. I doubt whether he would consider Cortot's characteristically fanciful description of the Third Impromptu's centre as 'like an avenue of fans, folding and unfolding,' however apt and delightful, as little more than a return to an old-fashioned subjectivity. Again, Cortot tells us that in Variation 9 of the Theme and Variations there is a moment like' a dark lifted ecstasy when on the high G sharp-- the curve of the melody-- the heart sinks down like a star in the evening.' Such things, I imagine, are not for Debargue's crusading spirit, one that seeks a clarity, even abstraction beyond such evocation. He would, I imagine, sympathize with Mendelssohn's celebrated aphorism, 'music is too precise rather than too vague for language.' There is greater sympathy with the Fifth Nocturne's questioning, but too little lilt in the swing-high-swing low opening to the Second Valse-caprice (a reflection of the hammock tunes fashionable at the time), and, again, he takes an overly firm hand to the Second Barcarolle's Italianate warmth. In the Sixth Nocturne, one of the few keyboards works to achieve near popularity, neither he nor anyone else comes near Wilhelm Kempff's subtle indirection in what was, remarkably, that great artist's single venture into the French repertoire.

   More positively and I hope less churlishly, I would like to single out and celebrate Debargue's way with the Fifth Barcarolle, a complex transitional work which he plays with a powerful and impassioned sense of its fraught poetry as well as an easing of tension in the unforgettable sunset coda. And it is the Fifth Barcarolle which takes us to that change from Faure's early and florid romanticism into austerity and a dark night of the soul. Here, surely, is music for the greater part reflecting Faure's personal circumstances, his failed marriage, his increasing deafness and, most of all, a neglect that beneath his outer gentlemanly surface must have stung him to the quick. His music piled up un-played, was used for jam- jar covers by his publisher, and he felt prompted to write to Cortot asking why he describes his music with such love and affection but so rarely plays it. The Ballade was the only work to feature frequently in Cortot's concerts and he failed to perform the later Fantasie, despite its dedication to him.  Faure also became aware that Marguerite Long's championship was more a case of self-promotion than genuine love, and in an understandable fit of pique he referred to her as 'shameless.'

    The Nocturnes and Barcarolles Nos 7-13 are a departure from one world into another. This is as exceptional as Liszt's change from 'l'exuberance de coeur' to l'amertume de coeur exemplified, for example, in the worldly, show- case glitter of 'La Campanella' and the austerity of 'Angelus' from the third book of the Annees de pelerinage. Both works evoke bells, but there all similarity ends. Such austerity suits Debargue's serious intent. He is sensitive to the multi-directional, tortuous progression of the Tenth Nocturne, music of a barely supressed anger. He finds a sinister undertow in the Fifth Impromptu's bi-tonal whirl, while in the first of the Nine Preludes he is alert to its contrast between the ethereal and the unsettling, to the Saint Vitus's dance of the Second, snapping as it were at the dancer's heels, and to an emotion almost too pained for utterance in the Seventh. For him the Ninth Barcarolle, to evoke Liszt once more, is Faure's 'la lugubre gondola,' and in the extraordinary tryptych of the Nocturnes 11-13 he captures all of the elegiac grief of No 11,(composed in memory of Naomi Lalo, wife of the critic Pierre Lalo, but also a reflection of Faure's own disillusionment at the time)and to the way lyrical lines in No 12 are soured and intensified by dissonance. This is music, to quote the pianist Peter Uppard, where 'every phrase is filtered through a diaphanous gauze of sadness.' though also one in Debargue's hands of rage.

   Faure remains an ambiguous figure and, as Alfred Brendel reminds us, we live in an age with little time or taste for ambiguity. Lucas Debargue's enterprise is a bracing wake- up call, at its best an eloquent attempt to take Faure from the past to the present, to present a composer for all time. He is more for 'vigour and resolution' than 'manoeuvring and finessing' but if it is a powerful antidote to the more winning and incomparable inwardness of Germaine-Thyssen-Valentin, whose early recordings remain a touchstone of quality, I remain grateful to him for a version which celebrates the centenary of the composer's death and lifts Faure from the doldrums of the neglect and incomprehension that have dogged him down the years.  Debargue will surely compel all serious musicians, particularly in the centenary of Faure’s birth, to think again.


Bryce Morrison