French pianist's artistry won't be forgotten

Music: Piano legend Jean-Marie Darre died last week at 93.

February 02, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bad news travels slowly when the people concerned have been absent from the public's eye. Memories -- in this country, at least -- tend to be short.

Nevertheless, I was shocked to read in yesterday's New York Times of the death a week earlier of the French pianist Jean-Marie Darre at the age of 93. I was startled both because it hadn't occurred to me that Darre was still alive and because her performances in New York and Boston in the 1960s had meant a great deal to me when I was a young man.

When you are 17, almost everyone past college age seems old. When I heard Darre for the first time, performing the Schumann Concerto with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, she was only slightly older than I am now, and she did -- despite her chic appearance and attractive face and figure -- indeed look old.

But the shock for me, even then, was that Darre was still alive. That performance of the Schumann Concerto was Darre's American debut, at age 57. She had already been famous, in Europe and to piano aficionados everywhere, for a very long time.

Her first recordings were piano rolls made for the Welte-Mignon and Ampico companies in the early 1920s -- the same companies that were still recording or had recorded such legendary figures as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, Edvard Grieg and Camille Saint-Saens. Darre had, in fact, taken lessons from Saint-Saens and had studied his works with him, as she had with other great French composers, such as Gabriel Faure and Maurice Ravel.

Every collector wanted to own copies of her long-out-of-print recordings of the five Saint-Saens Concertos, which she performed with unequaled bravura, or her recordings of the Liszt-Paganini Caprices, which were reputed to be more electrifying than those of Vladimir Horowitz.

Little wonder that, to a 17-year-old, she seemed to have been resurrected from legend.

Darre was perhaps the last great representative of the traditional French piano school. But, at least in the concerto performances and recitals I heard in the 1960s, there was nothing old about her playing. Her performances of the Second Concertos of Liszt and Saint-Saens lived up to her formidable reputation with those pieces.

While her Chopin, like that of other French pianists, could be somewhat emotionally and tonally dry, there was no denying her individual mastery in some of that composer's works.

I don't think I will forget the skill with which she could play rapid pianissimo figurations, such as the descending cascades of notes in the C-sharp minor Scherzo or in some of the Etudes and Preludes.

She was a wonderful Liszt player, and her 1965 performance in Carnegie Hall of his Sonata in B Minor was as memorable as those I heard in that hall in that same season from Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter.

Some of Darre's recordings have been reissued recently: Her early 78s on VAI Audio; her Saint-Saens Concertos on EMI; and her mid-1960s performances of Chopin and Liszt on Vanguard Records. She was a great artist. Here's hoping she won't be forgotten again.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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