Fort Worth — Only 20 years passed between the composition of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue in 1884. and the completion of Book I of Debussy’s Images in 1905. But eons of philosophical and stylistic difference separate the two works, a point delivered neatly in the concert by French pianist Vincent Larderet Saturday at PepsiCo Recital Hall on the campus of Texas Christian University.
Larderet’s performance marked the close of the 2019 Distinguished Artist Series at PianoTexas, an annual festival and academy directed by pianist Tamás Ungár of the TCU faculty. PianoTexas annually brings together established international artists, aspiring young artists, and devoted piano amateurs for three weeks of concerts, private lessons, lectures, competitions, and master classes. This year’s focus was French music, and Larderet obliged with a program embodying the pivot, at the turn of the 19th century, of French music, culture, and character.
Larderet opened with the aforementioned Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, a grand triptych paying tribute to the German baroque—and J.S. Bach in particular—but expanding the genres of that era with broad romantic piano technique and haunting emotionalism. Though written several decades after the heyday of heavy French romanticism, it emanates the spirit of the age of Dumas, Hugo, Delacroix, and Napoleon III.
Larderet commandingly delivered the varied cultural and musical trends embodied in this monumental work, with an aggressively muscular melodic tone and impressive attention to Franck’s complex counterpoint; equally important, he carefully controlled the rise and fall of the successive storms that rise up in this piece, landing with breathtaking power on the final coda, when a B-major ray of sunshine finally bursts through the roiling clouds.
This produced a pleasantly startling contrast with Ravel’s concise, light-filled “Jeux d’eau” (“Water Play”) of 1901; worlds away from Franck’s dark thunderings, Ravel here imitates, with sparkling arpeggios and glissandos, the glistening motion of water in a fountain, realized with a firm but rapid-fire touch by Larderet.
The rest of the program was devoted to large-scale examples of the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, demonstrating both the spirit of lightness and playfulness that came to dominate French music and culture with the arrival of the 20th century, as well as the distinctive qualities of those two composers. Like Ravel in “Jeux d’eax,” Debussy likewise focused on the piano’s ability to create a liquid fluidity in his “Reflets dans l’eau” (“Reflections in Water”); in this first movement of the set of Images, the one concern with Larderet’s approach emerged. Here, Larderet’s realization of the melodic line became heavier and almost too aggressive for this very delicate music.
That approach was, however, more convincing in the second movement in the set, “Hommage á Rameau,” a mystical, almost spiritual tribute to Bach’s French contemporary Rameau, and in the final work in the set, the entirely abstract “Mouvement.”
Larderet devoted the entire program after intermission to the music of Ravel, beginning with the six evocative movements of his Miroirs. Here, once again, Larderet’s muscular touch was at times too heavy (as in the passionate, Spanish-inspired “Alborado del gracioso”) and at other times exactly on target, as in the resonant “La vallée des cloches” (“Valley of Bells”). Rather than performing the five movements of the work in the standard published order, Larderet intriguingly ordered the set according to the date of composition, beginning with the impetuous “Oiseaux tristes” (“Sad Birds”) and closing with “Noctuelles” (“Moths”).
Larderet closed the concert with the American premiere of his own revision of Ravel’s piano version of Suite No. 2 from the ballet Daphnis et Chloé. Although relatively early in Ravel’s career, the piano version of this monument of impressionism underlines the modernist trends in Ravel’s development and foreshadows the strategies of Stravinsky’s epoch-shattering ballets of just a few years later. Here, Larderet found a perfect balance of his French sensibilities and his aggressive tone, as well as an ideal counterweight to the adamant romanticism of the opening Franck work.
Appropriate to the arrival, just a few hours after the close of the recital, of July—the month of the great national holidays of both the U.S. and France—Larderet encored with Debussy’s Prelude “Feu d’artifice” (“Fireworks”), delivered with explosive energy.