Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
WHAT MAKES French pianists sound French? It's easy to hear pace, lyrical clarity, a gourmand-like relish, and hard to do. If you play yourself, you'll know. All credit to Piers Lane in Wednesday's The Piano (Radio 3) for letting his listeners in on the trade secrets. One of this series' rare pleasures is to hear one pianist talking about others with frank enjoyment and no bitching. This time, Lane teased out the origins of what Radio Times billed as "The Diggy-Diggy Dee School". The nickname is the cosmopolitan French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard's unfortunate term for illustrious players of the earlier 20th century. So it ought to be spoken with a French accent, though Lane made it sound better in Australian. Anyway, the trick is to do it with your fingers. No heaving shoulders, no bicep-driven crashes of the forearm, just a precise articulation at the point of contact with the keys. Digital skill is the way to bring out the subtle shades of colour and tone that sound so typical. There's sometimes a touch of harpsichord technique, as Lane showed from Robert Casadesus's firm, rapid way with a piece by Rameau. But if you find out the secret when you are grown-up, it's too late, since muscle habits must start early. Still time to have a Gallic child, though.

Lane began the story with Marguerite Long, who knew the turn-of-the-century piano composers and became a teacher and exemplar. Debussy told her to play as if the piano had no hammers, Faure gave her her definitive repertoire - Long's recording of a Faure Barcarolle showed a fine feeling for space, light and buoyant energy. Alfred Cortot applied the heritage of Chopin to a fleet, lucid and warm performance of Schumann's Papillons, without self-conscious Germanic profundity. He was another dominant teacher. If you can play Cortot's studies, said Lane, the Chopin Etudes are a piece of cake.

The less familiar Yves Nat came in for praise. If you like your Schubert steeped in nostalgia and Viennese anguish you would hate Nat's fluent verve, but you have to recognise the flair. So too with Samson Francois, often dismissed as an eccentric by English critics, maybe because he used to fall asleep in the dressing room before recitals, but here delivering some even, sparkling Ravel. Idiosyncratic pedalling, though, Lane noticed.

Now, he said, the tradition's simplicity and clarity have been modified by German and Russian influences. He must have meant Collard, whose thunderous Rachmaninov he chose, but there was no time left to explain. Nor was there much talk about other French traits: phrasing, an eagerness to run away with climaxes, rhythm that floats freely without any need to pull the tempo around. Still, Lane's chosen performances made the points.

R3 has had a good run with musicians talking about the history of their craft: Robert Lloyd on opera was just as revealing. It isn't so hot with the ways of today. Creatures of habit who went to the Sunday-night world music slot these last two weeks must have been shocked to hear Elliott Carter's mind-bending compositions. There is a good intellectual case for presenting contemporary East Coast classical pieces as items of world music, but I don't think that's what R3 meant. Were they being provocative? Or does nobody notice at midnight? Next week it's Maxwell Davies. More world music is planned for next season, but the wait is going to feel long.