Desert Island Discs: Ernest’s Pick January 2023

Ernest’s Picks

Ernest So

Happy New Year to all our readers! I hope 2022 was a fruitful year for all our collectors and music lovers, and I wish you a new year filled with music and new collections! 

In this month’s “Ernest’s Picks” the writer tips his hat – or, more appropriately, his beret – to fellow francophones. I have selected three discs which highlight the variety and multiplicity that falls under the umbrella term “French Music”. 

In most record collections on musique française, Debussy and Ravel reign high, below which Fauré, Franck, and Satie will most likely take up a substantial portion of shelf space. 

However, to draw a more comprehensive picture one must look into the history of the period. During those decades, individuals weren’t in the limelight, but musical groups or even cliques of vastly different persuasions catering to the fickle but curious Parisian public. There was Les Apaches formed by Ravel, Les Six which convened in Montparnasse, rivalry between the Paris Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum, each boasting its own approach and ideals prescribed by captains-in-command such as Fauré in the former and Vincent d’Indy in the latter. The French public expected to be tickled by new music every hour on the hour, and everyone took sides according to their tastes, whims, and fancies. 

Human history, however, often seeks out the antithetical for answers: a simple conflict could inspire volumes of text and fill pages of minutiae (countless anecdotes of Mozart and Salieri come to mind – mostly fiction, I may add) while the most convoluted rivalry is reduced to simplistic comic-strip scenarios. This fiery collision between groups and fractions in Paris during the final decade of 19th century and into the first half of 20th century was perhaps looked upon by outsiders then and now as petty, niggling, and irrelevant, resulting in later generations disentangling this chapter of music history by simply calling it “French Music”, or worse, “Impressionism”. 

As collectors dig deeper into music that existed surrounding Debussy and Ravel, a valuable treasure trove of recordings will fill up more shelf space than planned. So make a hole, empty up a box, and make way for some surprising and interesting discs from the land of baguettes and cafés. 

Rhené Baton & Guy Ropartz Florence Paumier, piano 

En Bretagne

Brittany, the north-western région of France, has seen plenty of music making at the turn of the century, with a considerable group of composers writing a considerable amount of music, in one way or another inspired by their patrimoine and linguistic heritage. 

En Bretagne is a set of 6 distinct works, 4 of which are featured in this disc (there had been no recording of the set before or after this – there exists only one home- made video on YouTube from 2018). The works within all came with descriptive titles, suggesting life of local Bretons amidst the battered history of the region. The music is transparent, yet highly suggestive of orchestral designs. Rhené-Baton was beyond doubt a greater master on the podium as he has established an illustrious career as a conductor and composer of symphonic works. Although all in print, almost none of Rhené-Baton’s piano works is performed or recorded. 

Guy Ropartz, however, has been enjoying a respectable come-back in recent decades. He was more fluid in his style, combining elements of Parisian impressionist main- stream with scholarly contrapuntal writing. The outcome is often elegant but driven, more directional and logical, yet retaining a familiar femininity. The spirit of Fauré is strong with this one. 

Florent Schmitt, Paul Dukas & Albert Roussel – Annie d’Arco, piano 

Annie d'Arco, piano

This disc could very well bear the title “Tombeau de Debussy”. (Mirages Op. 70, La Plainte Au Loin De Faune, and L’Accueil Des Muses were all written with an inscription “Tombeau de Debussy”) 

Here, the très accomplished winner of the 1946 Geneva competition and Marguerite Long’s student Annie d’Arco (1920-1998) gave a recital disc on three composers of the same generation: Schmitt, Dukas, and Roussel. Schmitt and Dukas were a pair of good friends, having studied under the same teachers in their younger days. Chaine Brisée Op. 87 was one of the works by Schmitt written in memory of Dukas. The Mirages Op. 70 is a masterpiece of Schmitt – it is, as I often imagine, what Debussy would have written if he had lived longer and continued the threads from his final Etudes. Duka’s La Plainte Au Loin De Faune is enigmatic and magical. Roussel is slightly odd in this trio, as he would take the Debussyan sound world a bit further – Roussel is a chromosome away from being Messiaen, and they are often paired on discs. 

Whether you are a collector or just a piano lover, Annie d’Arco’s discs are a must in your collection. 

Jean-Jacques Laubry – Raffi Petrossian, piano 

Jean-Jaques Laubry

French-Armenian Raffi (and his wife Ani) Petrossian appears sparingly in our record collections. Even for pianists they are a rarity. He now lives in Toronto, with a thriving reputation as a construction engineer, and actively participates in Armenian revival. His recital disc here is a real gem – not only was he more than proficient in standard works of Scarlatti, Liszt, and Scriabin, he also actively sought out new works, in this case a complete set of Preludes by French composer Jean-Jacques Laubry (1916 – 2001). Laubry was and still is a completely unknown figure, his French Wikipedia entry has just been updated in December 2022, mostly by his nephew Henri Pauly-Laubry, also an accomplished composer. 

Raffi’s playing of J.-J. Laubry was warm, refined, and fluid, exhibiting traits of Golden Age pianism. Like walking into a hidden Parisian bistro, these Preludes are sumptuous and rich in their harmonic palette. The language is based firmly on late-romantic nostalgic expressions, with occasional Debussyan colours. These inviting Preludes are a treasure to behold. 

See tracks lists and more photos in Issue 5 – available in your subscriber account – on page 124.