Obituary: Jeanne-Marie Darre

JEANNE-MARIE Darre was one of this century's foremost representatives of the French school of pianism, combining its concern with precision and clarity with a sympathy for large-scale Romantic gesture - she was, in Nicolas Slonimsky's words, "a virtuoso in a grand manner".

Darre was born in Givet, close to the French border with Belgium, in 1905 and until the age of 10 took lessons from her mother. Her first important teacher was Marguerite Long, in whose preparatory class at the Paris Conservatoire she won a premier prix in 1917. She then went on to study with the doyen of French piano-teachers, Isidore Philipp, winning the premier prix in his class in 1919 and subsequently studying with him privately.

Philipp would assign his students exercises to remedy particular shortcomings rather as a doctor prescribes medicine for given diseases, and in an interview with Charles Timbrell for his book French Pianism: a historical perspective (1992), Darre recalled how he helped her compensate for her small hands; she would spend hours and hours on technique every day, well beyond the two or three that Philipp recommended. She explained her teachers' principal concern:

Finger technique is what Long and Philipp were about. Very clear articulation was obtained from exercises with high fingers that strike fast into the keys. Of course, it is very important to have a relaxed wrist.

Darre implemented this approach from a position that was unusually high above the keyboard.

The American pianist Grant Johannesen, again in conversation with Charles Timbrell, declared that "Jeanne-Marie Darre has been the best example of what the old French school was all about. She had a certain reserve about her playing and a wonderful petite technique of fingers and wrists. But she was also drawn to the big literature, and was not arty and precious, as some French pianists have been."

Darre made her Paris debut at the age of 20, playing a generous programme of Galuppi, Couperin, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Henselt, Moszkowski, Chabrier, her teacher Philipp, and Schubert-Tausig - the kind of healthily eclectic mix that today's purists primly avoid. She had begun her recording career even earlier, making a number of Vocalion 78s in 1923, when she was only 18; the composers chosen were Bach, Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Saint- Saens, who had died only two years previously.

In the event, Saint-Saens - to whom Darre had played his own music, as she did theirs to Faure and Ravel - was to play a substantial role in her life. In 1926 she was catapulted to prominence, when, aged only 21, with the Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Paul Paray, she played all five Saint-Saens concertos in a single evening, a feat she repeated on other occasions. But Darre was fond of tackling head-on a composer's work in a particular genre: she would happily programme all the Chopin Preludes and tudes in a single recital.

Darre's career was largely confined to France until, in February 1962, she made her US debut at Carnegie Hall in New York, with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra accompanying her in her beloved Saint- Saens - this time only the Second Concerto. She made a considerable impact. The New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg, a judicious connoisseur of pianists, found her "an exciting, formidable, electrical virtuoso, who can do anything at the keyboard and do it with aplomb. But it is not all technique. She has complete tonal control, and a massive sonority."

Over the next 20 years she returned regularly to the US, before retiring from the concert stage in the early 1980s. She was an infrequent visitor to Britain, last appearing in 1974 at the Royal Festival Hall at a gala concert in aid of the International Piano Library; unsurprisingly, she played Saint-Saens - the Toccata, Op 111, which was her piece de resistance.

The conductors she worked with form a roll-call of some of the most important names of the century: as well as the composers Gabriel Pierne, Vincent d'Indy (whose Symphonie cevenole she recorded on 78s) and Philippe Gaubert, there were Andre Cluytens, Henry Wood, Gregor Fitelberg, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Ernest Ansermet and Constantin Silvestri.

Darre was not a frequent visitor to the studio, although she made a number of respected recordings which testify to her prodigious ability. In the late 1950s, with Louis Fourestier and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise, she recorded, of course, the five Saint-Saens concertos, as well as his Septet - a set which has recently been re-released on CD by EMI France. The American label Vanguard has just re- issued two recordings from around the same time: a disc of the Chopin Waltzes and another featuring the Liszt Sonata.

That work was one of Darre's specialities. In his book The Art of the Piano (1990), David Dubal explained what was so special about her Liszt:

She thrives in objective scores, such as the Ravel G major Concerto, Weber's Konzertstuck, or any of the Saint-Saens concerti, for which she is famous. At her best, she is alert and glittering, possessing a dryness of tone that is characteristic of French pianism in general. At her worst, she sounds curt, even heartless. Her playing at all times manifests an interest in neat, finely grounded pianism; each nut and bolt is squarely placed.

Her prime achievement on record is a fascinating portrayal of the Liszt Sonata, which she spins out to 33 minutes, 20 seconds. Darre has placed this complex puzzle under her microscope and dissected its every fragment. She strips the massive work of its usual Faustian rumblings and bombast, giving us the quintessential French Liszt Sonata: slim, linear, and controlled from first note to last.

Jeanne-Marie Darre was not a prophet without honour in her own country. In 1958 she was appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1966 she was made an Officier of the Legion d'honneur and, a year later, a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

Martin Anderson

Jeanne-Marie Darre, pianist: born Givet, France 30 July 1905; died Port Marly, France 26 January 1999.

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