Chaminade: Sonata and Etudes - Blanchard

Chaminade: Sonata and Etudes - Blanchard

MDG Scene  904 1871-6

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Chaminade: Sonata in C minor, Op. 21; Étude symphonique, Op. 28; 6 Études de concert, Op. 35; Étude mélodique, Op. 118; Étude pathétique, Op. 124; Étude romantique, Op. 132; Étude humoristique, Op. 138; Étude scolastique, Op. 139; Souvenir d'enfance

Johann Blanchard, piano

Debut Discoveries
Johann Blanchard discovered more than twenty cartons packed with musical scores, including unpublished manuscripts and printed editions long out of print, in a relative’s garage. The young pianist quickly realized just what treasures had come to light. They included a great many pieces by Cécile Chaminade, a pianist and composer who was very popular during her lifetime. And so for his solo debut on MDG Blanchard decided to present a most highly demanding look at the oeuvre of this extraordinary musician.

Sensational Career
Chaminade enjoyed an enormous, worldwide reputation: in England she was received by Queen Victoria, after her first visit to the United States numerous Chaminade Societies were founded, and in her native France she was admitted to the Legion of Honor – the first female composer to be so honored! Piano compositions and songs form the focus in her oeuvre, and Johann Blanchard begins with the three movement Piano Sonata, Chaminade’s only contribution to this genre. Although the sonata is in the romantic tradition of Beethoven to Brahms, the third movement already points to the virtuosic element since it is identical to the Étude op. 35 No. 4.

Character Studies
And the other works on this release are also designated as “Études.” They are not so much technically oriented finger exercises as finely detailed character pieces placing enormous pianistic demands on the interpreter. Descriptive adjectives such as “pathétique,” “symphonique,” and “humoristique” indicate their character already in the titles – and the public’s expectations are not disappointed: the “Étude romantique” contains reminiscences of Liszt, while the “Étude mélodique” shows Schumann’s influence.

Timeless Tribute
Johann Blanchard has close ties to Cécile Chaminade. His father, he too a concert pianist, studied with the Cortot pupil Wilfrid Maggiar, who dedicated himself almost exclusively to Chaminade’s music especially during the last years of his life. These familiar and family ties of course require a proper instrumental tribute: the “Manfred Bürki” Steinway concert grand piano of 1901 brings back to life the Parisian salons of the turn of the century in perfectly balanced MDG sound – luxurious listening pleasure on the highest level.

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - February 4, 2015

Concert pianist Johann Blanchard recently made a Summer visit to his family in France to work on new repertoire. His father, also a concert pianist, had inherited many scores from a pianist by the name of Wilfred Maggiar. The documents turned up in a nearby cousin's garage and Blanchard began studying them. He found many unknown works and autographs from bygone composers, including many from Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), whose works Maggiar had dedicated himself to in his final years.

Personally, I came across Chaminade in the 50's and early 60's, when her Etude de Concert "Autumn" was frequently played on the BBC Radio music programmes. I got hold of a score of "Autumn" and delighted in playing its unforgettable melody - until I came to the fiendish central section, which really did require a very experienced player! I'm very glad to see more of her work returning to the public's notice, as otherwise Chaminade's only appearance was when a pianist dredged up "Autumn" for an encore.

Johann Blanchard has selected his programme from her 400 or so compositions, focussing on the most challenging ones, including her only Piano Sonata. He plays this music on a wonderful restoration of an old Steinway Concert Grand Piano D, 1901, hand-built and finished with rosewood veneer. Its rich tone, particularly in the bass and upper treble, is distinctive at first hearing and its clear articulation, with a shorter resonance than the modern Steinway D models, is ideal for the sort of virtuoso passage-work that Chaminade specialised in. The bass register has a unique gravitas and the upper range is perfect for bravado runs.

Blanchard provides a good summary of Chaminade's musical career, from which I pick out several highlights. At the age of 8, she was encouraged in her piano playing by one of the family's Parisian neighbours, one George Bizet. Her first public appearance at nearly 20 years old was in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. She associated with Saint-Saëns, Chabrier and Chausson but her piano recitals comprised only her own piano compositions and songs, while her ballet 'Callirhoë' was a huge success, with 200 performance. She travelled on concert tours all over Europe, and was invited to play for Queen Victoria. Several extensive visits to the USA followed, where a set of "Chaminade Clubs" popped up. After 1918 she was financially compromised and lost her villa. She moved to Monte Carlo in 1937 and died there in 1944.

What kind of pianist was Chaminade? A very good one, having soaked up music by Liszt and Schumann in particular, but she developed her technique in shorter pieces which would be applauded by large audiences, rather than the scholarly nature of other forms of piano music. Her character and attitude to her music is, I think, very clearly read by looking at her scores. She uses the directions "con passione" or "appassionato" more than in any other collections of music I have seen and it is clear that she herself had a passion for music, which she expounded to her listeners with energy and generosity.

Johann Blanchard follows all her directions and sails through her most difficult technical work with fluidity and brilliance on his venerable Steinway. Listening to his programme, her very Romantique sonata moves on to several sets of concert études, where she could let herself go in colourful textures and a natural gift for attractive melodies. And here is my 'Autumne' in the 6 Etudes de Concert op. 35, in its first high-definition recording, bedecked with all the warm colours of Fall, and in its centre section, a mighty seasonal storm from a flood of notes, which nearly has you running for shelter before the sun reappears.

Blanchard seems to hint in his commentary that he will be "rescuing" some more lost composers from his father's aforementioned garage cache of MSS. As if presenting things to come, he adds a World Première recording of one of Chamades' unpublished pieces, a character étude (a favourite format of hers), 'Souvenir d'enfance', which amusingly seems to be from a harried parent's view.

The DG engineer's placing of the Steinway is relatively close, making for a wide stereo presence and deepened by multichannel. Interestingly, the concert hall of the Marian Monastery venue provides enough air around the piano to let its tone develop properly in all registers, yet there is virtually no audible reverberant decay when the music stops. The capture is very well balanced so that sonics do not distract from a listener's concentration on the music. This album was recorded for a 2+2+2 speaker disposition, but I listened in 5.1 quite satisfactorily.

I heartily commend this disc to all piano aficionados who are willing to stray from their usual tracks: do try this engagingly melodious, virtuosic and passionate music, beautifully played on an instrument of its time and recorded vividly. It is a breath of pianistic fresh air.

Copyright © 2015 John Miller and


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