Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Fantasia in F-sharp Minor H 300, Wq 67
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 54 (Sonata facile or Sonata semplice)
Justin Taylor: Piano
Claude Debussy: Menuet, from Suite Bergamasque
Maurice Ravel: Menuet, from Le tombeau de Couperin
César Franck: Prelude, Choral and Fugue
Philippe Cassard: Piano
Since I had to make a two-day stop-over at my mom’s in Dieulefit between the International festival d’art lyrique in Aix-en-Provence and my half-sister’s wedding in Lyon, I was pondering how sensible it would be to attend not one but two concerts in a row with my mom and our friend Jacqueline in nearby Saoû, which meant a return home roughly by midnight, on the eve of the big event. Shouldn’t I be planning on getting a good night’s rest instead? On the other hand, The Saoû chante Mozart festival had never failed me or anybody else, and after being deprived of live music for so long, the temptation was just too hard to resist.
So in the end, last Friday evening, I found myself in the intimate courtyard of the château d’Eurre, a lovely 14th-century castle surrounded by lavender fields whose private owners are kind enough to open every year for the festival. Since my tickets were acquired later, I did not seat next to my mom and Jacqueline, who had premium seats, but in the middle of the first row house right, which essentially meant that for the entire time I would be staring at the shoes of the two pianists featured in the 6:30 PM performance. But hey, beggars cannot be choosers, and I felt lucky to be there, on a beautiful summer evening, as the small space was packed to the rims, or at least to the top of the staircases.
The first pianist was Justin Taylor, a very nice young man who is also, according to his short bio, one of those multi-talented prodigies whose fortes span from Baroque to jazz. But even more than that is sometimes required when you play outdoors. Although he was obviously ready to handle anything musically, his biggest challenge on Friday evening turned out to be a strong and facetious wind that was apparently determined to mess his sheet music up. But not to worry, plenty of good humor and a pro-active page turner eventually allowed the performance to proceed without a hitch.
Once everything was more or less settled, he wasted no time flexing his pianistic muscles on nothing less than the faithful replica of a 18th-century pianoforte, because bringing the real thing would have been way too risky. For the occasion, he had chosen Mozart’s Baroque-influenced Suite in C Major, KV. 399, a lesser-known but, needless to say, impeccably put-together piece that exuded the Viennese master’s trademark elegance and vivacity.
Next, we stayed in the Baroque realm with one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s numerous sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and his exquisitely contrasted Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Wq 67. While some may have taken it for a particularly inspired improvisation, it had a sharp structure that seemed to prove otherwise. In any case, it remained firmly under Taylor’s tight and informed control.
We went back to Mozart—It is his festival, after all—in a more classical form this time, with his popular Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major. Thing is, while the work has been nicknamed “Easy Sonata” or “Simple Sonata”, and as such invariably shows up on the playlist of every piano student, it still takes a lot of commitment and practice to make it sound as spontaneously scintillating as Taylor did on Friday night.
After this first part of the program was over, and almost without missing a beat, which was quite a remarkable feat considering the little space the crew had to maneuver, the old-fashioned pianoforte was replaced by a more modern Steinway, and the second part of the concert was underway without any further ado, this time in the company of solidly established pianist Philippe Cassard and his tantalizing 19th-century-French program.
Music resumed with the Menuet from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, the impressionist composer’s dazzling tribute to the French Baroque harpsichordists. And if nothing of the traditional minuet could be found in this new take on it, there was hardly any reason to complain as we were all thoroughly enjoying the enchanting river of notes, overflowing with light rhythms and pretty melodies, that Cassard steadily produced.
The second menuet du jour was from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, a moving six-movement tribute to six of his friends who died in World War I. In fifth position, the Menuet came out as an uncomplicated, peaceful, borderline nonchalant, homage to Jean Dreyfus, with one brief moment of tension, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared, as if to remind us all of the tragedy that inspired the composition in the first place.
The pièce de résistance of this concert had been saved for last, but it was certainly worth waiting for. Franck’s extended and complex Prelude, Choral and Fugue, in which darkness always seems about to overpower light before the long, tormented and thoroughly magnificent journey ends in a transcendent ecstatic finale, is no fare for the faint-hearted. Thanks to Cassard’s magistral performance of it, we too were all transported by the composer’s compelling narrative, and came out all the better for it.
One down, one more to go.