CD Review: Gabriel Fauré, The Complete Nocturnes—Richard Shuster, piano (Fleur de Son Classics 58023, 2014, 75 minutes)

Fauré’s piano nocturnes span his entire career: the first was competed around 1875, the last in 1921. I must confess his solo piano music is quite unexpected in sound to me when I compare it to all those lovely, limpid, elegant accompaniments for songs like “Lydia” and “Au bord de l’eau.” By contrast, Fauré’s solo piano music is texturally rich (indeed, usually highly polyphonic) and almost orchestral in conception. Though it has much of the characteristic virtuosic passagework that distinguishes Liszt, it is more controlled and thoroughly integrated into the texture, with the result that there seems to be little respite for the pianist willing to learn and perform his music.

Several pianists have released their own recordings of the Nocturnes (which fit very handily on a 75-minute CD), but I haven’t heard any release prior to this one. In any case, I can’t imagine a performance that would be better. I want to begin with the great piano sound: not too close, not too far away, resonant, never shrill. As I began listening, I initially felt that a bit of reverberation might have helped, but with repeated hearings I realized it’s perfectly fine as it is, and besides the added clarity is welcome for the many difficult passages.

Next, of course, I should discuss the pianist himself. Richard Shuster is, in a word, superb. His technique makes possible an astonishing variety of tonal color (a must in French music) and unerring sense for voicing (again, essential given the polyphonic and textural richness of the music). Add to this abundant imagination in effecting the perfect phrasing for a melody (for instance, as in his performance of the fourth nocturne) and absolute security in even the most difficult passagework, as in the turbulent central section of the second nocturne.

Perhaps best of all, Mr. Shuster displays a truly intelligent approach to the music; that’s good, because Fauré’s formal designs abound in a number of novel variations to the basic A–B–A format of each piece and the harmonic vocabulary steadily increases in complexity—never approaching a complete lack of tonal center, it often gives the impression of Wagner’s suspension of tonal goals but with a flavor utterly unlike the German. Shuster gives many unusual progressions (for instance, in the tenth and thirteenth nocturnes), a perfectly understandable sense of direction. I should hasten to say, though, that Shuster’s intelligence never sacrifices the passion of the music, but rather only enhances its beauty and élan. I would love to hear him in Debussy, Chopin, or Bartók—three great pianists, also composers, who also understood how perfectly to blend the cerebral and the sensual.

The helpful notes are by Carlo Caballero, himself a distinguished scholar of Fauré’s music. A lovely pastel by Odilon Redon (1840–1916) graces the cover; called The Boat Maiden with a Halo, or (Redon’s own name) The Golden Prow, it is suffused with a rich dark blue color—its figural outlines are difficult to discern but seem strangely familiar, much like Fauré’s music. Fleur de son’s sound is exquisite. The CD is available from a number of websites, including HBDirect.

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