Deeply committed, unfailingly stylish Wigmore Hall recital by Emmanuel Despax

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ‘Après un rêve’ – Poulenc, Fauré, Ravel, and Saint-Saëns: Emmanuel Despax (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 1.7.2023. (MB)

Poulenc – Les Soirées de Nazelles
Fauré (arr. Despax) – Après un rêve, Op.7 No.1
Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit
Saint-Saëns-Liszt (arr. Horowitz) – Danse macabre, S 555

By way of a CD launch, Emmanuel Despax gave a wonderful Saturday lunchtime programme, as deeply committed as it was unfailingly stylish, of French music at the Wigmore Hall. First came Poulenc’s Les Soirées de Nazelles, the composer’s 1930s ‘portraits’ or, as he a little confusingly also called them, ‘variations’, initially improvised for friends assembled by his countryside piano, introduced by a ‘Préambule’ and cadenza. That ‘preamble’, essentially a prelude, opened in Prokofiev-like manner, soon melting slightly to reveal a softer, yet never merely soft, Poulenc centre, all despatched with characteristic élan. Momentum sprang from Despax’s repeated notes – ‘Extrêmement animé et décidé’ – though he always maintained the impression of allowing due time and space; it was never hurried. The darker cadenza, albeit illuminated by shafts of musical light, gave a fine sense of extemporisation. Then came that parade of characteristic ‘variations’, the first delightfully dry, its successor, a full-bodied ‘La cœur sur la main’ turning to the heart. The composer’s indications for each were respected to the letter and, more important, in their spirit, exquisitely voiced, as if fruits of marriage between music of the French clavecinistes and Romantic preludes or character pieces. Scampering certainty and momentary doubt of ‘Le contentement de soi’; mock pomposity of ‘La suite dans les idées’: time in sinuous near-suspension, or at least elongation, in ‘Le goût du malheur’: by way of such delights, we turned to a second cadenza whose open fanfare seemed at first to suggest the Organ Concerto, again more an occasion for metrical, fantasia-like freedom than overt display, and a lightly summative ‘Final’ with a closing touch of something more darkly enigmatic.

Despax’s own transcription of Fauré’s ‘Après un rêve’, which gave its name to the recital as a whole, sang beautifully in two piano registers, with a proper sense of the original and its words, yet without being unduly limited by them. As ‘itself’, the piano wove its magic around, a little in the line of Liszt. A Lisztian spirit of the transcendental variety is and was present also in Gaspard de la nuit, ‘Ondine’ beginning to shimmer in Fauré’s shadows — or rather, its waters did. A fine balance between the pictorial and something beyond, allure and (rightful) distrust, coolness and heat, is Ravel’s own, but here it was Despax’s too, all painted with the most atmospheric precision. The measured, inexorable tread of ‘Le gibet’ evoked the subjectivity of solitude in the midday sun. Then the flickering malevolence of ‘Scarbo’ burst forth, punctured yet never vanquished by pregnant silences. Virtuosity here is a sine qua non yet was only the starting point for musical performance.

Liszt’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, further embellished in 1942 by Vladimir Horowitz, emerged in context in duly diabolical fashion, and very much in nineteenth-century voice. Insistent and fantastic, and both as vivid and as virtuosic as Gaspard, it spoke with a freedom that suggested paraphrase yet was not: ideal for such repertoire. Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ made for a magical encore postlude. This will clearly be a recording to savour.

Mark Berry

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