AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Thursday April 2, 2020
Another in the welcome series of socially distant recitals from Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s excellent initiative, this program brought back into play a good many well-known scraps from the piano literature. Laussade’s aim was to offer an entertainment that demonstrated the two sides to her own situation of having both French and American parents. So we enjoyed some Debussy, a Chaminade study and the first of Satie’s Gnossiennes; from the United States came a brace by Scott Joplin, a Zez Confrey bracket, and the piano solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
All these works were written inside a 45-year window, two studies standing at the temporal extremes; Chaminade’s Automne Concert Etude dates from around 1885 while Confrey’s atypical F sharp minor Concert Etude was written in 1929. So it was a pretty closely circumscribed world that Laussade showed us, the two pivots of the hour coming in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and the always taxing Gershwin extended fusion – one of the few that actually works and standing tall among the composer’s happier inspirations.
Somewhere along the way, the program was changed. Originally, Joplin was represented only by his Maple Street Rag; as matters turned out, we also got to enjoy The Easy Winners. Likewise, Confrey’s etude was partnered with the jazz writer’s much better-known (and more representative) Dizzy Fingers. To my disappointment, we lost Ravel’s Ondine, that inspired, lavish series of pianistic splashes; instead Laussade performed a very individual reading of the first (and most attractive) in the three-part sequence that constitutes the first set of Satie’s possibly Cretan-inspired meditations.
Chaminade’s well-known piece is not that hard to negotiate if you are gifted with a talent for emphasizing an internal melody line. Its central Con fuoco section offers more challenges, even if the action dies out into a very conventional couple of cadenza bars before a return to the opening material. Laussade’s attack was packed with rubato which fitted in with the work’s title, and it emphasized the attractive lyricism of the outer sections, although a plethora of pauses interrupted the piece’s fluidity near the opening of the F minor interlude. This reading put poetry before drama – a wise decision, given the Frenchwoman’s by-the-numbers attempts at the latter.
Both Joplin pieces were treated with absolute determination, the Maple Street notable for its accurate, striding left hand assurance and a sensible dynamic alternation across some of the repeats. Later, The Easy Winners gained much from Laussade’s sense of the music’s shape as she refrained from the customary devil-take-the-hindmost assault, interpolating a few hesitations to relieve the potential tedium of a steady four-quavers-per-bar octave bass line.
Nothing much to report of the Debussy pair. This interpretation of Reflets dans l’eau came across as rhythmically four-square for most of its duration, the executant keeping more strictly in time than most other performers a kind reference to some notably sloppy readings from very big names. Even the Quasi cadenza stretch between bars 20 and 35 made rhythmic sense – for once. You might have preferred a lighter approach at the En animant in bar 44 but once again the following strophes were kept on leash rather than given over to a free-for-all. The piece’s final page passed rather quickly; I suspect that bars 74 and 78 were rushed, but the concluding Lent could not have been bettered for its amplitude and delicacy of articulation. The following La fille aux cheveux de lin delighted for its lack of self-indulgence: a sensible reading with some clever extension of marked pauses to give some tension to this unforgettable rural idyll; no curls here.
Confrey’s etude is a very competent arpeggio essay which works best if given at a consistent rate. Laussade took plenty of liberties, interpolating pauses and ritardandi, but even then not quite secure in its negotiation. Still, she struck through to the post-Czerny, post-Chopin core of these pages – a fully Romantic throwback written a full century after the etude’s actual vogue. Much more entertainment came from one of Confrey’s greatest successes, Dizzy Fingers, which is a clear successor to the Joplin era and a catchy sample of amiable virtuosity asking for deftness and a moto perpetuo approach. Laussade had no troubles with this bagatelle, even if she gave it more gravity than it deserved.
The Gnossiennes present a problem because you don’t know how seriously to regard them. Laussade told us she considers this first one to be ‘dark’, a work ‘that truly represents what we may be feeling in this very difficult time’. And that’s how she played it – without any quirkiness or laissez aller frivolity, finding an implacable tragedy in the acciaccatura-rich chorus that concludes each paragraph and giving the music plenty of space – what else should you do in a work where there are no bar-lines? This approach gave – to me, at least – a new view of this familiar piece, one that had always seemed curious, slightly simple-minded in its regularity.
Gershwin’s great rhapsody presents pianists with hefty challenges at every turn, the whole thing made more difficult in the version where accompaniment is absent and the player is left to carry a can full to overflowing. Even the composer’s own recorded version makes for a wearing experience. Still, Laussade made a brave start with a gentle, relaxed approach to the opening pages with only the slightest hitch at the first of the ossia bars. The first and second bars that start with a triplet figure after the poco agitato direction sounded unfocused, improving as the pattern became more common. Nevertheless, the rest of the piece’s first half proved to be well-considered and delivered with an insightful response to each episode – and God knows, there are a lot of them.
A few notes went missing in bars 34-36 after the tonality changes to G major but the ensuing fortissimo D flat explosion succeeded in rounding out this stomp with resounding success. And the long ruminations on the Andantino moderato E Major tune made for a fine experience, the performer taking us fully into the composer’s calmly syncopated ambience that has its unmistakable echoes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. A few errors cropped up in the shift to Agitato e misterioso when the left hand is asked to cross over; later, the post-left hand glissando bars sounded awkward and laboured, but these are among the hardest pages of this solo version where the executant is lumbered with both the orchestra’s carrying of the sparked-up melody and also the soloists’ syncopated decoration in the second half of each 4-bar phrase.
Laussade put in two bars extra before bringing the right hand in for the Grandioso cakewalk, and these final pages brought us back full circle to Maple Street, thanks to Gershwin’s inspired braggadocio, here realized with drive and panache. In fine, an elevating version of this masterpiece, which resounds with confidence and optimism as it hymns the Republic’s self-assurance – qualities that radiated loud and clear from this fine artist’s realization.