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A Century’s Worth of Piano

Date: Sun April 5, 2009 3:00pm

One of the best-planned and at the same time oddest-looking piano recitals I’ve ever encountered is coming up two Sundays hence, in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. There, the distinguished French pianist Pascal Rogé will play a survey of basic French piano music from 1830 (Chopin’s Op. 10 Étude No. 1) to 1929 (Poulenc’s First Nocturne). While largely devoted to works of Chopin and Debussy, along the route the program includes examples of Fauré and Ravel — besides the one Poulenc composition.

As a nice touch, Rogé has mixed composers by title type. He opens with three Nocturnes (Fauré, Chopin, and Poulenc), then plays four Waltzes (Ravel and Chopin), two Mazurkas (Debussy and Chopin), and on like so, with Études and a lot of Préludes, plus a Ballade to open and close that sequence. He’s offering a remarkable 24 works at one go, though only the final Chopin Ballade No. 4 is large-scale.

Born in Paris in 1951, Rogé entered the Paris Conservatory at the tender age of 11, also making his Paris debut that year. He graduated, with honors, in piano and chamber music in 1966, then went on to a major career, playing with all the major orchestras. He’s also been a mainstay of London Records, winning all the major European prizes. His recording of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos, for example, won a Gramophone Award, the Edison Award, and a Grand Prix du Disc — a trifecta in the record industry.

All three of the opening Nocturnes are in C major: Fauré’s Op. 33, No. 1; Chopin’s Op. 48, No. 1; and the Poulenc. Those are followed by three of Ravel’s valses nobles et sentimental and Chopin’s famous C-sharp Minor Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2; then come Debussy’s early Mazurka and Chopin’s Op. 33, No. 4, both in B Minor. (Bear in mind, a mazurka and a waltz are not far different in their use of three-quarter time. They vary largely in stressed accent: downbeats for a waltz, upbeats for a mazurka.)

Next come the really challenging Études: Chopin’s First in C Major, Debussy’s Pour les 8 Doigts (For eight fingers), and, very likely his most sensuous piano work, Pour les Arpèges composées (For composed arpeggios). Closing the first half is Chopin’s Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor, the famous “Revolutionary” Étude.

The Étude group is followed by Debussy’s early Ballade Slave of 1890, influenced by his Moscow residency as piano teacher to Nadezhda von Meck’s children (she being Tchaikovsky’s famous patron). Rogé then launches into his largest block: nine Preludes by either Chopin or Debussy, all played off against one another.

He begins with Debussy’s Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) and Chopin’s famous 15th in D-flat Major, the “Raindrop.” Three Preludes from Debussy’s Book I follow those: La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The maid with the flaxen hair), Le Vent dans la plaine (The wind on the plain), and Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest (What the West wind saw), before another Chopin Prelude, the No. 6 in B Minor, Tolling Bells. Then listeners will hear three of Debussy’s more complicated Preludes: La terrasse des Audiences au clair de lune (The terrace where the moonlight gives audience), Les Collines d’Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri), and Canope (Canopic jar). And for his big finish, Rogé plays Chopin’s virtuoso Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.