Fauré: The 5 Impromptus

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Addressing the piano music of the great French master Fauré in my recent review of Louis Lortie’s superb recordings, I noted,

“Of all the truly seminal composers in the evolution of the piano repertoire, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) remains one of the less performed, his significance little understood, his extraordinary music too easily overlooked.”

How joyous, then, to see Jean-Pierre Bartoli’s new scholarly-critical performing edition of the 5 Impromptus from leading publisher Bärenreiter, based on the musical text from the corresponding volume of their Oeuvres complètes de Gabriel Fauré of 2020.

These ravishing treasures are suitable for the advanced performer at diploma level and above (the second Impromptu, and best known of the five, is presently included on ARSM, DipABRSM, ATCL and ALCM syllabi).

Let’s take a look at this new edition…

Fauré’s Five Impromptus

The five Impromptus occupy a modest position in Fauré’s piano output, of which the 13 Nocturnes and 13 Barcarolles form a dominant core, each set traversing the composer’s career and acting as a musical diary that reveals the development of his style from arch-Romanticist to the colourific musical explorer of his later years.

Commenting on the nature of the Impromptu, present editor Bartoli notes in his Introduction to this new publication:

“The generic title implies the principle of a composition written in the spirit of the moment, not free form improvisation (this being referred to by the genre of the fantasia): hence its use of codified symmetrical forms with a coda at the end.”

The first three Impromptus date from the earlier part of Fauré’s career, the first (Op.25) appearing in 1881/2, the second (Op.31) and third (Op.34) following in 1883. Adopting the precedential model of Chopin’s Impromptus (composed between 1834-1842), Fauré borrows the former’s ternary form, essentially comprising a fast outer piano étude with a more lyrical central passage.

Separated by more than two decades, the later Impromptus are more boldly conceived in their sonority, harmony and virtuosity, reflecting the more adventurous spirit of Fauré’s late compositions. The fourth (Op.91) dates from 1905/6 and was dedicated to the pianist Marguerite Long (with whom we are told the composer had a rather rocky friendship), while the fifth (Op.102, dating from 1909) offers a study in Fauré’s use of the whole-tone scale.

Before moving on I should mention the “sixth” Impromptu (Op.86bis) included in Eberhardt Klemm’s 1976 volume for Edition Peters (EP 9560a, which also includes the 9 Préludes Op.103). This was not in fact composed by Fauré for the piano; rather it is a transcription by the pianist Alfred Cortot of a work composed for the harp, and conceived for the idiom of that instrument. Bartoli has justifiably omitted it from his new Bärenreiter edition.

The Bärenreiter Edition

Jean-Pierre Bartoli’s Impromptus edition joins the growing range of Bärenreiter’s individuated performing editions of Fauré’s piano oeuvre, which already includes Christophe Grabowski’s editions of the Valses-Caprices, the 13 Barcarolles, and the Ballade.

The publication opens with a useful Introduction in three sections, covering the background to the Impromptus, their Performance, and Editorial Principles of the edition.

The background information, and in particular the Performance suggestions, add immensely to the value of the publication. In the latter we read of the composer’s own (unusual for the time) performance approach; according to his son Philippe Fauré-Frémiet, Fauré

“…had a horror of virtuosity, rubato, and effects that make audiences swoon. He followed the text step by step, in strict measure.”

But what of the text here? Bartoli explains that a definitive text confirming the composer’s last word on the Impromptus is elusive, due to the complex range of sources available to the scholar. These include the original first editions as well as much later posthumously published revisions which at best give an imperfect impression of Fauré’s final thoughts.

Helpfully, the five-page Critical Commentary to the rear of the volume gives ample indication of the decisions Bartoli made in preparing what is now, undoubtedly, the leading scholarly edition. The Commentary also expands upon the practicalities of performing these works building on the general insights offered in the introduction.

Closing Thoughts

The Bohemian composer and pianist Jan Václav Voříšek (1791-1825) is credited with the invention of the impromptu (his first appeared in 1817, a further set of six following in 1821); it is a form which has spawned some fantastic pieces, albeit from a relatively small handful of composers.

Following the great sets of Schubert and Chopin, Fauré’s Impromptus present a third significant group of such pieces, and though less well-known they certainly deserve to be played more widely.

This exemplary new edition from Bärenreiter makes them an even more tempting prospect, and can be recommended without reservation.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

2 thoughts on “Fauré: The 5 Impromptus”

  1. Lovely review – I would love to have more details on page layout, page-turns, etc. in these reviews. Barenreiter is usually very good with their page-turns – much better than Henle. Sometimes a Wondeful urtext edition is marred by such details and pushes one to prefer other editions, unfortunately. We cannot all memorize music!

    1. Thanks Matt, and I totally agree.
      In this score, the page turns cannot all be perfect due to the nature of the music, but I think Bärenreiter have done a fine job of placing them as best as possible, e.g. where one hand has a bar rest, or at a section break.
      Your point about the importance of page turns is helpful – in the case of this publisher’s recent version fo the Schumann Arabesque I avoided reviewing it because I personally found their placement of page turns infuriating (Henle and Wiener Urtext both far preferable) even though the edition itself is superb. Sometimes the page turns are a deal-breaker!

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