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November 25, 2008

Schumann's Etude Symphonique 11 (3 versions)

By: Bernard Chazelle

Samson Francois was an extraordinary pianist. His treatment of Debussy and Ravel was a marvel of intelligence and sensitivity. He was a "localist," insisting that every musical phrase had to be its own conclusion. He was the nearest thing to Thelonious Monk a classical pianist ever was. (I know many deride Monk's playing but then many praise Kenny G's. That's the world we live in.)

Not sure I've heard the Etude 11 sound so eerily magical before. Disclaimer: Francois was a good friend of my uncle's, so I may be biased. I never met him though but I heard many stories about what a colorful character he was. He went through a serious anti-Romantic phase to focus on the early-century French repertoire. He eventually returned to Chopin, his early love, and the German Romantics. Asked why, he replied that it took him many years to discover that Chopin was, like Mozart and Debussy, a great melodist. (This is an interesting comment because Debussy is thought of primarily as a harmonist).

The YouTube video has two more versions: one by Alexis Weissenberg, which might have been all right if only he hadn't been so anxious to make his dentist's appointment. While Francois makes you hear a composer, Weissenberg makes you hear a pianist. Francois would probably have advised him to play the piano, not with two hands, but with 10 fingers. Ivo Pogorelich signs off with a thoughtful, interesting interpretation. I report. You decide.

The Etudes Symphoniques are lab experiments. If the phrasing sounds, at times, quirky it's because it is. Schumann died insane and his music rarely reflects mental serenity (another Monk parallel). In the Etudes, it's the composer, not the performer, doing the studying, as he tries out new rhythms, new colors, new counterpoints. Samson Francois plays like a chef who adds more and more ingredients to the pot and then dips his finger into it and licks it. Yummy, yep, that stuff tastes pretty good. Now let's add the green onions and see what happens. His control of dynamics is remarkable. Really helps you appreciate what a dazzling variety of veggies Schumann liked to put in his soup.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at November 25, 2008 08:25 PM

What a great post. I couldnt pick a favorite (of the 7). Loved the Francois, but also loved the Tipo and the Gilels (something sinister and broken about that one that really appeals). Pollini was a big letdown, especially after spending the past few weeks just loving the absolute dogshit out of his Chopin Nocturnes. Hell if that isn't one of the most perfect records I've ever heard.

Posted by: Guest at November 25, 2008 09:40 PM

Prof Chazelle, I was waiting for some "music" post and many thanks for this. It is MAGICAL. I am not familiar with this piece of music ( do not claim to know a lot of it ) and heard it a few times and Samson Francois's rendition is fabulous. Even the sound of his piano is just gorgeous. I enjoyed the Ivo Pogorelich's interpretation too though I found, the two different interpetations had a different effect on my mood!!

I was not sure, if Weissenberg was playing the same piece. It sounded like he was playing too many notes with one hand and the tempo was too fast. ( I am no pianist but it did not sound the same ).

Thank you again.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at November 25, 2008 11:09 PM

In the midst of our terrible black hole of a storm, what a refreshing, stimulating offering this his, Bernard.

Your use of the term "magical" is just spot on.

How can one not celebrate the genius of Schumann's alongside Van Gogh's, as well as Beethoven's deafness, Monet's failing ears, and Sylvia Plath's despair?

It disgusts me that so many have inadvertently tried to include George Bush in such company by deeming him "crazy". Vicious? Heartless? Weak? Yes! Insane? He hasn't got the bloody creativity to be insane.

Oh . . . and I can't get enough of Melodious Thunk. Now THERE is insanity I'd die for.

Thank you for the interlude.

Be at peace.

Posted by: ddjango at November 25, 2008 11:18 PM

[the rule, ddjango, is to proof before posting]

>> stimulating offering this is . . .

>> Schumann's madness alongside Van Gogh's . . .


Posted by: ddjango at November 25, 2008 11:22 PM

I normally don't comment here, although I read daily: Love the music posts, and everything else.

Posted by: Compound F at November 26, 2008 02:29 PM

Cool. and FWIW, I've never dissed Monk.

Posted by: Kenny G at November 27, 2008 04:49 AM

I have an old Angel vinyl of Francois playing the Ravel G Major and D major (for the left hand) piano concerti...absolutely sublime, and unequalled to this day.

Posted by: barrisj at November 29, 2008 12:16 AM