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Classical Music Review: Greg McCallum – Voyage A Paris

By the end of the 19th century Paris was arguably the centre of the artistic world. “The City Of Light” was like a magnet to the extraordinarily gifted of the age. Through art, music, and literature the list of those who became part of the city’s canvass is a veritable who’s who of the genius of the age.

World renowned American pianist Greg McCallum’s reputation has seen him play at many of the world's major concert halls. His latest release Voyage A Paris (MSR Classics MS 1233) sets out to capture the very essence of the era by exploring the evolution of French piano music from the late 1800’s through into the early part of the 20th century.

It is a challengingly rich and diverse period from which to make a selection but proves to be a challenge that he has more than risen to. Each and every composer chosen for this recording made Paris home at various stages of their careers. His selection provides a finely balanced set of some of the finest pieces from the period.

French Romanticism is represented through Cesar Franck (1822-1890) and the sublime “Prelude, Choral et Fugue,” which forms the backbone of the album. As you would hope, and expect, the Impressionist movement also features with performances of works from Claude Debussy (1862-1918), as well as Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).

The album opens with two short pieces from Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) who, along with Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre, and Auric, was one of the leading, and most charismatic, lights of the group known as Les Six.

The city’s romantic, yet vibrantly exciting cabaret atmosphere of the Montmartre and Pigalle areas radiate from much of his work. With “Improvisation No. 13 in A Minor” and “Improvisation No. 15 in C Minor" or "Hommage a Edith Piaf,” Poulenc captured something of the very heart of Parisian society.

The second piece introduces echoes of the legendary Piaf whose presence can still be felt within the city. These compositions date from between 1932 and 1959.

Parisian Claude Debussy, who once studied under Franck in the city, appears for the next three recordings. “Minstrels,” and “La Cathedrale Engloutie” or “Sunken Cathedral” are both from "Preludes Book I" written in 1909-1910. Whilst “Feux d’Artifice” is taken from "Preludes Book II" which dates from the period 1910-1913.

In the fascinatingly detailed sleevenotes Mr McCallum states that the composer’s impact on the evolution of Western music was “monumental,” a view shared by many, including none other than Stravinsky. He also reminds us that, despite often being labelled as ‘Impressionist,’ he was, in fact “more closely associated with the views of the Symbolist writers around Paris” who would use “evocative images and their associations to convey other states of experience.”

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) came to Paris when only three months old and stayed in and around the city for the rest of his life. Again the educational sleevenotes tell us that Ravel’s “meticulous attention to detail,” resulted in him being admired as “the Swiss watchmaker” by Stravinsky.

“Gaspard De La Nuit,” based on the collection of poems by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1842), is widely regarded, by many, including Greg McCallum, as “one of the pinnacles of twentieth century piano repertoire.” This is a remarkable fact when you consider that apparently the composer was not a renowned pianist himself.

In his book, published after his tragically early death, Bertrand claims to have met the devil, “Gaspard,” who provides the manuscripts for the poems. Ravel chose three of them, the tragic “Ondine,” the macabre “Le Gibet,” and the spine-tingling suspense of “Scarbo.” All are expertly performed here.

“Regard de l’Espirit de Joie” by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) rounds off the album with a composition divided into seven sections. The background to this piece is explained by Mr. McCallum whose admiration and understanding of his subject is inspirational in itself.

“I embarked on an intensely personal journey. I began by studying French in 2004, then travelled to France and spent the summer of 2005 living only four blocks from the place of Debussy’s birth” he tells us.

By doing so he was able to revisit a time where the arts inspired each other in near equal measure. This he did by immersing himself in the art, cuisine, language, history, and culture of Paris. As a result he has delivered an exquisite selection of music that captures the heart of the city at a time when it was awash with creativity.

About Jeff Perkins