Previous posts have explored how many great pianists had a personal approach that made their interpretations unique and their playing at times instantly identifiable. Hearing five pianists play the same Chopin Nocturne we can appreciate that each artist can bring individual insight to any given composition. Some of the great pianists of the past had qualities that made their playing readily recognizable, such as Cortot with his patented tone and rubato, Friedman with his rich tone and soaring phrasing, and Moiseiwitsch with his patrician elegance and luminous sonority.
There were many great pianists who were equally distinctive in their style and impressive in their artistry, though not all were known to the same extent. One whose disposition was quite different than the aforementioned musicians is finally, more than six decades after her death, being recognized for her sublime artistry: the marvellous French pianist Marcelle Meyer.
Born in 1897, Meyer studied in Paris and soon found herself in a remarkable artistic milieu that enabled her to become acquainted with some of the most important and innovative composers, musicians, and artists of the early 20th century. She began her official studies with Marguerite Long before training with Alfred Cortot, additionally taking lessons from Ricardo Viñes, who had premiered several of Debussy’s and Ravel’s works.
When the 20-year-old Meyer played the premiere of Erik Satie’s Parade in 1917 — a collaboration that involved Picasso, Cocteau, and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes — she became Satie’s favourite pianist and was approached by an appreciative Debussy, who then coached her in the last year of his life. Meyer became the unofficial pianist of the innovative group of composers known as Les Six — in fact, a 1922 painting called Le Groupe des Six features her more prominently than its official members! — and she premiered many of their works while also being commissioned for performances with Ravel, Strauss, and Stravinsky.
When Meyer died suddenly of a heart attack in 1958 at the age of 61, her career had already been in decline and she was soon forgotten, the bulk of her records on the obscure (and by that time bankrupt) French label Les Discophiles Français all but unobtainable. When EMI France reissued four sets of these performances in the 1980s — including a Ravel cycle that had won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1954 — Meyer entered the international record catalogue for the first time in a quarter century. Over the following decades, she gradually became better known amongst collectors and musicians, and she is now being recognized by a wider audience as one of the foremost pianists of the 20th century.
It is remarkable to consider that an artist of her stature who recorded over 17 CDs worth of material over the course of 30 years (from 1925 to 1957) should be forgotten. It is all the more amazing and disconcerting given the truly incredible cohesiveness, intelligence, and scope of Meyer’s music-making: she was as graceful in Scarlatti as she was vivacious in Stravinsky, as elegant in Rameau as she was refined in Ravel. Her approach to each composer was utterly distinctive, even amongst composers from the same era: her Bach, Scarlatti, and Rameau are all poised and dignified but different in timbre and conception, and she is among the few who used different palettes and sensibilities when playing Debussy and Ravel (not surprising given that she worked with both composers and their colleague Viñes as well).
And yet regardless of the composer she played, her pianism is immediately recognizable for some of its trademark characteristics: a crystalline glass-like sonority, fluid phrasing that is supple despite its tensile strength, transparent textures, and nuancing so refined that you can listen to each measure with the sonic equivalent of a magnifying glass and never encounter a flubbed phrase, accent, or effect. She was, quite simply, a perfect pianist whose monumental technique disappeared fully in service of the music.
An artist as accomplished as Meyer is difficult to explore in a brief exposé, as every recording of each composer reveals yet another glistening facet of this jewel of a pianist, but these few samples will demonstrate her exceptional and truly monumental artistry. For more detail, please investigate this feature on my website.
Meyer produced the first-ever recorded cycle of Rameau’s complete keyboard works in 1953, and her traversal is of astounding beauty. What is particularly captivating is the way in which her ornamentation is seamlessly incorporated into the melodic line, so that trills are not rigid devices that interrupt the flow of the melody but rather support its expression. Also notable is how her rhythmic momentum continues without ever sounding either rigid or rushed. Under Meyer’s fingers, this music is no longer centuries-old — we hear it as if it were new.
Among Meyer’s superb 1950s recordings is a set of piano works by Chabrier, pieces that are vastly under-appreciated today. Meyer plays with an astonishing level of refinement while being simultaneously playful, quixotic, charming, and elegant. Her account of Idylle — a personal favourite that her daughter considered part of ‘the soundtrack of my childhood’ — is a beguiling performance in which, yet again, her flawless technique disappears into impeccable nuancing and seamless expressiveness.
While Meyer’s lessons with Ricardo Viñes certainly gave her understanding of Debussy’s music a strong foundation, there’s no doubt that the coaching she received from the composer himself cemented her distinctive and authoritative approach to his works. Debussy is said to have helped her prepare his Préludes, which Meyer recorded in the mid-1950s but which remained unpublished until a CD was issued 35 years later (a limited edition double-LP set of the original planned but unreleased album was recently produced).
Before producing her complete set, in 1947 Meyer recorded three of these works, including an account of La terrasse des audiences du claire de lune that is one of the most magical piano records ever made (the later version is amazing too). Her evocative timing, refined dynamic gradations, incredibly rich tonal colours, and magical pedal effects together help her create an interpretation that is mesmerizing from the first note to the last — the breathless pianissimo in the final measures makes time stand still.
One of the things that stands Meyer apart from other Ravel interpreters is her metrical precision and clarity of texture. While Debussy was more impressionistic, Ravel was more what Stravinsky referred to as (perhaps in not the most complimentary way ) ‘a Swiss watch-maker’ (Ravel in fact had a collection of timepieces in his studio). Meyer plays the Pavane pour une infante défunte at a tempo that sounds brisk to modern ears — likely what the composer wanted, since he himself once stated that “it’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane”. She shuns sentimentality while still playing with emotion, never losing the tensile strength of each phrase and only occasionally employing subtle shifts in timing in order to keep a steady pulse and make these nuances more impactful.
For all the magic we hear in the twenty-plus hours of studio recordings Meyer made, one of the most phenomenal readings we have by this exceptional artist is a recording of a concert she gave a mere six months before she died, only recently made available: an astounding traversal of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. This was a work that her teacher Viñes had a formative role in shaping and Meyer’s performance is unlike any other, with sultry rhythmic emphases and idiomatic timing that bring to mind the sensual moves of Spanish dancers and the sound of the Flamenco guitar.
There are few pianists as consistently satisfying and awe-inspiring in as wide a range of repertoire as the marvellous and miraculous Marcelle Meyer. Finally rescued from obscurity, this remarkable artist now occupies a more prominent position in the pianistic pantheon.