The Songs of Gabriel Fauré – Graham Johnson

Written by: Colin Anderson

Graham Johnson discusses the songs of Fauré, and the role of the accompanist…

Pianist Graham Johnson accompanies world-famous singers, devises numerous song-related projects, and writes wonderful essays to complement the superb recordings he makes for Hyperion. Accompanists are “custodians of stylistic and musical information.” Graham’s current focus is on the songs of Fauré; all of his mélodies, as recorded for Hyperion, will be performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama by student singers and pianists. Graham has organised and will present the seven recitals, beginning on 9 November, and has “heard all the students, 60 or 70, who have worked very hard; it unites the school in common purpose. It’s interesting to see some confronted with work they wouldn’t have rushed to perform; once they begin to study it, they fall very deeply in love. Fauré is addictive but requires an open mind.”

At the GSMD the songs of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) rub shoulders with piano music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and “represent two sides of the French creative spirit. Fauré was always the great arbiter of taste. Poulenc’s sensibility was refined in a totally different way; the 1920s represented a loosening of stays, and he didn’t really feel for Fauré as a composer. Fauré’s was the type of music that Poulenc’s generation turned its back on. But they were united by the sensibility of French music; a sense of distance and remaining calm and collected amidst the greatest passions.”

Graham outlines Fauré’s songs, written between 1862 and 1924. “He begins prettily with salon music, entertaining with a highly developed melodic style. There’s a later period where the music intensifies but remains immediately accessible. Then bit-by-bit the music becomes more harmonically complex and then incredibly translucent, interior and almost evanescent and something very modern, giving the impression that Fauré is an avant-garde composer, even though he may not express himself in a Webern-like way. But there is a thread that goes through all the songs: a sense of control and a huge harmonic sophistication. The complexity of Fauré’s harmonic invention is almost second-to-none and almost impossible to sight-read: the keys and the modulations move with strange and unusual subtlety. Fauré refuses to shout at you but hopes his measured tones will draw you in.”

Though what of the ‘poor old pianist’ being presented or perceived as secondary to the singer or solo instrumentalist being accompanied? “It’s the greatest conundrum of our career. I think a lot of people hear the top line only, and only those who are sophisticated listeners hear the second texture and that it is independently functioning. Often the accompanist is sitting in the place of the composer, and they gave themselves interesting parts, and the whole often begins and grows from the piano part. Respected critics have asked me what I thought of a performance – as if I was in the audience, yet I have been playing! The Guildhall runs a very significant programme for student accompanists; this project is for them as much as for the singers. Then the differential gets wider; there was one instance when a very great singer got 30,000 dollars and gave her pianist 300. This does little for true, equal music-making.”

Graham Johnson, Senior Professor of Accompaniment at the GSMD, says that this Fauré and Poulenc initiative is “a showcase for the students. Ronan O’Hora, who is the head of our keyboard department, has worked on the Poulenc, and therefore we can get the biggest number of people taking part, and it’s a good chance to get the solo pianists into the Poulenc repertoire. It’s a really wonderful thing to have so many gifted youngsters under the same roof being able to tackle something like the songs of Fauré, a special case in French music, which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. It’s about control and exquisite qualities of judgement, and it’s never too soon for students to get an idea of style.” Fauré’s song output is attractively elusive, something to fascinate the willing listener. As Graham says: “understatement is so important to French composers.”

  • November 9-24, GSMD, 020 7628 2571
  • Admission is free and requires no ticket
  • GSMD
  • Hyperion
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 9 November 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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