Gabriel Fauré
A section of John Singer Sargent’s 1889 portrait of Gabriel Fauré

He was, by all accounts, an important artist, one who composed some of the most familiar melodies in classical music. But as his ability to hear gradually diminished, his music evolved dramatically, culminating in a set of astonishing chamber works that some still find difficult to decipher to this day.

That description absolutely applies to Beethoven. But it is just as true of another musical genius who doesn’t get the recognition — or the performances — that some say he should: Gabriel Fauré.

Now, Fauré is known today for a handful of popular pieces, such as his solemn Requiem, the ubiquitous Pavane, and a few other works that fall squarely within the Romantic tradition. But the many major works he composed in his final decade, including his String Quartet and his Piano Trio, are stylistically and emotionally far removed from those hits. Many people find them puzzling; others consider them profound.

Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk, and Steven Isserlis
Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk, and Steven Isserlis | Credit: Shervin Lainez

Cellist Steven Isserlis, a Fauré devotee, is very much in the latter category. Along with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk, Isserlis has embarked on a foray into Fauré that will culminate with a series of recordings for Hyperion next year. Before that, a five-concert Fauré Festival is planned for London’s Wigmore Hall in November, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the French composer’s death.

Californians interested in sampling this intense but inscrutable repertory will be treated to an early preview next month. The world-class trio of Isserlis, Bell, and Denk, along with Takács Quartet violist Richard O’Neill, will give an all-Fauré concert featuring three of the composer’s late masterpieces on July 5 at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. In addition, Isserlis and pianist Connie Shih will perform another late masterpiece, the Second Cello Sonata, in a Music Academy recital on July 3.

“There’s an ecstasy, a radiance about Fauré’s music that is uniquely his,” Isserlis said via email from England. “His music — particularly the late music — seems never to touch the ground, as it were. It inhabits a world above us.”

Richard O’Neill
Richard O’Neill

Asked for adjectives to describe this music, O’Neill came up with a string of them: “Magical, mystical, poetic, mysterious, sumptuous, sensual, psychedelic at times — colors galore.” But while today the violist considers Fauré’s output amazing, that wasn’t always the case.

“I remember the first couple of times I rehearsed the Second Piano Quintet,” O’Neill said. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all.’ It’s exploratory and elusive.”

“Elusive” is the adjective that comes up most often when discussing Fauré’s music — especially the late works Isserlis and company are focusing on. “Ambiguous” is close behind. “You can hear a [given] passage in many different ways,” said University of Washington music historian Stephen Rumph. “[Fauré] tends to avoid big, emphatic gestures.

“There are lots of ways of hearing and playing his music. That’s a deliberate strategy. The harmony will do one thing, the melody will do another, [and] the dynamics and the phrasing are doing yet another.”

Fauré, who lived from 1845 to 1924, is sometimes described as a bridge between the Romantic and modern eras. But in fact, he incorporated elements from centuries of musical history into his forward-looking works.

“There’s a lot of Bach in there, and [Fauré also utilizes] classical models,” said Denk. “[His music is] infused with this advanced Romantic harmonic language and an almost Mozartian grace.”

“He has a style unlike anyone else’s,” said Rumph. “Unlike almost every other French composer of the time, he didn’t study at the [Paris] Conservatory. [He instead studied] at this quirky little school for organists and choir masters which was founded to preserve and revive older church music, such as [the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da] Palestrina and Gregorian chant. So he absorbed a lot of early-music influences.”

Fauré wasn’t of any particular school of composing, nor did he found his own; while his students included Maurice Ravel (who dedicated his String Quartet to his teacher) and Nadia Boulanger (who went on to teach many great composers, including Aaron Copland), Fauré encouraged individuality rather than imposing any specific framework. University of Colorado Boulder musicologist Carlo Caballero compares him to another major artist of late-19th-century France, the symbolist painter Odilon Redon.

“Their independence, eclecticism, and reticence led contemporaries to admire Fauré and Redon deeply during their lifetimes,” Caballero said. “But that very individuality, resisting stylistic categorization, made them difficult to fit into our smoothed-out stories about the past. Time goes on, and those who do not fit are more conveniently omitted. They disrupt our historiographic schemes and boundaries.

“But this irritation, like the pearl in the oyster, may offer a beautiful if difficult-to-retrieve treasure if you are willing to brave the waters.”

“Fauré’s originality is astonishing but subtle,” added Isserlis, who played the Second Cello Sonata at his second-ever recital 50 years ago and has been gradually adding more Fauré to his repertoire ever since. “Outwardly, he follows classical models, but in fact, some of the forms he created are entirely new, and his harmonic language is quite unlike any other.”

“The last movement of the Second Piano Quintet [which is on the July 5 program at the Music Academy] is incredibly experimental in terms of what it’s trying to do,” agreed Denk. “There’s a weird proto-minimalism at times. It keeps cycling over and over, meditating over these cells of music. It’s almost like a mantra. It keeps at them until it reaches climaxes that almost remind you of Music for 18 Musicians [by Steve Reich].”

Jeremy Denk
Jeremy Denk | Credit: Josh Goleman

That description of simultaneously looking backward and forward brings to mind Beethoven’s late string quartets. It is probably not a coincidence that both Beethoven and Fauré were severely hearing impaired when they wrote these challenging, inward-looking works.

“[Once they lost their hearing] they both started to write more ‘music of the mind,’” Denk said of the two composers. “I don’t mean cerebral or unemotional music. Rather, they’re absorbed in abstract musical processes and possibilities.

“There are searingly beautiful passages in both Fauré’s Piano Trio and the Second Piano Quintet, in which you get a sense that he really ‘hears’ the acoustic. There are also lots of passages where he is thinking through relationships between musical ideas. You have to bring a lot of imagination to those [in order] for an audience to perceive what’s going on.”

So how should a musician approach these works? To begin with, it takes courage. These pieces can be “like a souffle,” said O’Neill. “If you do one little thing wrong, the entire edifice can collapse.”

“One has to feel the particular color of each new harmony and never give in to self-indulgence,” said Isserlis. “It requires wholeheartedly romantic emotion, but with classical discipline.”

For Denk, it helps to think in literary terms. “I’m afraid this is going to sound a little pretentious, but late Fauré reminds me of Henry James,” he said. “It’s an incredibly subtle, sophisticated musical language. It’s full of implications, ellipses, and extensions. But like in Henry James, underneath all that is tremendous desire.

“In the middle of a Henry James sentence, you might get lost and forget what the verb and subject were,” the pianist noted. “That’s a little bit true of Fauré. But behind Henry James is this tremendous syntactical command. He’s playing with you — making you wait for the clarification. I think Fauré likes to do that, too. He writes a really good epiphany.”

Steven Isserlis
Steven Isserlis | Credit: Jacky Lepage

Denk called Isserlis the driving force behind this project. “Steven is one of the great Fauré interpreters,” the pianist said. “I wanted to work on this music with him — to tap into his lifetime of experience playing it and distilling the simplicity out of it. He knows how to clear away the weeds and find the spine.”

Isserlis agreed he was the project’s instigator but added it has been “enthusiastically seconded by Josh and Jeremy.” At this point, he insisted, “we’re all Fauré fanatics!”