Entertainment Music

Wednesday 21 March 2018

David Fray - the Frenchman who brings Bach back to life

David Fray
David Fray

George Hamilton

David Fray isn't the first pianist of international renown to come from the city of Tarbes in the south-west of France. Cécile Ousset, another Gascony native, renowned for her interpretations of Debussy, Ravel, and Satie, thrilled audiences in the closing decades of the 20th century before back problems forced her into retirement in 2001.

Fray, though, is cut from a different cloth. Born in 1981, his career path has steered away from the staples of the French repertoire.

He puts this down to his background. Interviewed by BBC Music Magazine, which named him Newcomer of the Year in 2008, he described himself as "a living melting pot" with roots stretching right across Europe. And with parents who were lovers of all things German, he was less inclined to explore artistic territory close to home.

He may be French, but he doesn't play French music, with one exception - the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. You could argue that it's not really French at all, given the huge influence American jazz had on its composition.

Paradoxically, an early recording did feature the work of a Frenchman, but again this would be music that's far from the mainstream. Fray featured the 12 notations pour piano and a short experimental piece called Incises by the conductor/composer, Pierre Boulez, avant-garde music that's about as far removed from Chopin and Debussy as it's possible to be.

This he coupled with Bach's Partita in D major and his first French Suite, exploring connections between two musical extremes. The album cover, featuring a mirror image of the pianist looking in different directions, summed this up perfectly.

He followed with a CD of Bach concertos. This, and his hunched over style - he uses a chair, not a regular piano stool - almost humming along as he plays, drew inevitable comparisons with the late Canadian Bach specialist Glenn Gould, of whom that was a trademark.

Fray dismisses notions that he might have modelled himself on Gould. Yes, he acknowledges, as a child learning the instrument, he admired him a lot, but now, Glenn Gould is not a pianist who inspires him particularly.

Rather, it's the great German virtuoso, Wilhelm Kempff, who became a role model, a performer who could make the piano, in Fray's words, "sing and speak".

Fray, whose wife Chiara is the daughter of the Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, has built on his early success. The German news magazine Der Spiegel described him thus: "Perhaps the most inspired, certainly the most original Bach player of his generation."

Fantaisie (Erato 2564616699) - his latest CD, just out - features another of his favourite composers, Schubert, and includes two duets for piano four-hands where he's joined by his guru, the French pianist Jacques Rouvier, who was his teacher at the Paris Conservatory.

The delicacy of the playing is what strikes you most, proving that you don't have to make a big noise to be one.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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