Refined tastes

Article paru dans la revue anglaise International Piano mai-juin 2020

Colin Clarke explores the latest piano recordings from a French label that celebrates exceptional artists and unusual repertoire

Eric Rouyer

The splendidly named French recording label Le Palais des Dégustateurs boasts a varied catalogue containing numerous jewels. Recent piano releases include the renowned Robert Levin in Bach’s six Partitas, as chamber partner with Hilary Hahn and Alain Meunier in piano trios by Mozart ( featuring Levin’s completion of the D minor Triosatz K442) plus Boris Berman in Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Ya-Fei Chang in Liszt and Chopin, and Dominique Merlet in Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Although the label is based in Ucel, located in the heart of the Ardèche region, many of the recordings hail from the winegrowing village of Vosne-Romanée near Dijon. (The label enjoys links with a number of wine producers).

Le Palais founder Éric Rouyer has a clear and exciting vision: ‘I consider it to be a mission to celebrate exceptional artists who are unconcerned with success,’ he explains, choosing to work with people who ‘live in the dignity and loyalty of their values – not merely artistic, but human’. This is in contrast to (tactfully unnamed) record companies who ‘have abandoned their moral obligation to music’. Rouyer is adamant that he will ‘celebrate these cultural heroes neglected by our superficial era’. He works closely with the 92-year-old Professor Pierre Magnard, ‘a philosopher of the cultural heritage of France, who keeps a vigil over ethics and the quest for meaning’.
Active since 2015, the label’s already substantial catalogue reveals a similar disdain for popularism when it comes to repertoire: from motets by Jacob Handl (Ensemble Musica Nova) to Magnard and Franck violin sonatas (Poulet/Jean-Claude van den Eynden) and a disc of Fauré/Schmitt/Koechlin for cello and piano. The sound of Meunier’s cello on the latter is wonderful, partnered skilfully by pianist Anne Le Bozec. Pianists feature strongly in both solo and chamber repertoire. Taiwanese pianist Ya-Fei Chuang brings fluency and legerdemain to Liszt’s B minor Sonata and Chopin’s Préludes, while Dominique Merlet’s Bach exhibits fabulous cleanliness of attack and texture. Rouyer says he felt a ‘moral obligation’ to record Merlet’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which he believes is ‘a definitive version’. Merlet’s grasp of Bach’s polyphony is indeed awe-inspiring, and an aura of transcendent calm hangs over his entire performance. Boris Berman’s 2019 Brahms album follows a previous Debussy twofer for Le Palais. Best known for his many Chandos releases, Berman offers Brahms of maximal elusiveness: there is mastery to his subtle, exquisitely shaded readings of the Klavierstücke, from Op 76 through to Op 119. Head of keyboard at Yale, Russian-born Berman shows a very different side than in his Prokofiev albums for Chandos. The epitome of the new Brahms set is a deliciously otherworldly Intermezzo in E-flat minor Op 118/6.

Robert levn

Perhaps the greatest coup, however, has been securing the services of Levin, whose Partitas won the Grand Prix International du Disque de l’Académie Charles Cros: ‘This was a particularly moving moment,’ says Rouyer. Indeed, it is a remarkable recording, both musically and musicologically: early editions and ornamentation have been carefully considered. There are alternative versions presented for movements of the Third Partita (a different reading of a line in the Gigue) and in the Sixth (different rhythms for the Tempo di Gavotta and the Gigue).
Equally compelling are Levin’s completions of Mozart chamber works: the Triosatz K442 (Levin/Hahn/Meunier, coupled with the Trio K496) and, with violinist Gêrard Poulet, an album of unfinished duo works for violin and piano. The completions are magnificent, especially compared with others such as K442 by Abbé Maximilian Stadler (1748-1833). Levin’s versions ring perfectly true.
All the piano recordings are made on a superb Steinway acquired by technician Bruno Prévalet and captured by resident sound engineer Alain Gandolfi. Upcoming projects confirmed by Rouyer include Albéric Magnard’s monumental string quartet performed by the Béla String Quartet (‘a major work that has been much too neglected’) and Ravel’s complete piano works with Ya-Fei Chuang.