Ivan Moravec Plays French Music

Written by Eric Rasmussen on April 11, 2013.

At first glance, this post’s title may appear to be an entirely mundane observation about an acclaimed pianist who has played French music for decades. In fact, it’s the title of a lesser known recording by Moravec, and one that is all too easy to overlook. I could spend time telling you, truthfully, that Moravec’s performances here of Debussy and Ravel are beautiful, but the real gem is César Franck’s Choral Et Fugue. It’s so good that it’s pretty much all I’m going to talk about.

The Choral opens with a slightly dissonant, haunting melodic line that picks up pace rapidly and is soon pulling the listener in several directions at once. It continues to carry the listener on a dark and seemingly chaotic journey, but one that becomes familiar on repeated listens.

The second movement begins gently with vast, rolling chords. They materialize slowly, emerging from the sustained fog of the first movement delicately, rolling slowly from deep bass to high, bell-like tones, but always with clarity and purpose. The line between arpeggiation and melody blurs. As each note is played and sustained, the listener becomes aware of the unusual voicings; the juxtaposition of high and low extremes ringing together in harmony, evocative of no particular classical era. Timeless.

As the movement progresses, the repeated chord progression gives way to melodic sections that heighten the tension and drive the music forward. Each time it builds a little more, but always comes back to the beautiful chord progression with an increasing passion, intensifying until the inevitable climax.

The work closes with a brilliant fugue that is technically ambitious and melodically rich, highlighting and transforming the themes that came before it. I was so moved by this recording that I transcribed the Choral’s second movement for two extended 7-string classical guitars*. I would even recommend this recording if it were the sole track, but the entire performance deserves your attention.

*Transcriptions can be downloaded here.

Tagged: music, piano, romantic-era