Simply Madeleine: A Review
by Peter J. Rabinowitz, published in Fanfare, March/April 2012
(Copyright © 2012 by Fanfare, Inc.;reprinted by permission)
Simply Madeleine is a remarkable book. It was written, as she puts in, in the wake of "a deep sadness,” and the result is an unsentimental exploration of her experiences, from her childhood in Algeria to her post-retirement years in New Haven. Despite its inspiration, it’s not by any means a despondent text; it’s full of wit, humor, and youthful misadventure (I particularly enjoyed her description of a frantic program change when her sostenuto pedal broke during a concert in Pôrto Alegre in Brazil). But she doesn’t flinch when it comes to dealing with the most difficult choices she had to make, including the difficult decision to leave her first son, Yann, to be cared for by other family members while she went off to pursue her career. (When she wrote the memoir, she had not read Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark—which similarly deals with the hard choices an artist needs to make with respect to family. But on my recommendation she read it after our interview, remarking in an e-mail on the striking similarities between the life of “a little girl born in September 1938 in Africa” and that “of a little girl born in Moonstone decades before!”)

While the book is intensely personal, however, it is never self-absorbed; while it is richly detailed, it is never self-indulgent; while it offers intimate revelations about her relationships with her husbands (three) and her lover, it is never in the least bit sensational. In part, this modesty comes from Forte’s linguistic background: Although she thinks in English, it’s not her first language, and it encourages her, as she puts it, to “write simply.” In part, it comes from the advice of the friends who read early drafts—friends who advised her to cut and condense. But most of all, it comes from what appears to be her fundamental character. She talks in her interview about the importance of humility—and she sees the title of the book as reflecting something similar. “Simply Madeleine—that’s me, the way I am. Simply Madeleine is a little girl. After that is the same. No artifice. Just the way I came and the way I will finish.”

Forte’s life is fascinating in its own right—her descriptions of her childhood in Orléansville, Algeria (including experiences under the Vichy regime, the sense of excitement after the invasion of the Americans in 1942, the terror of the earthquake in 1954), of her experiences as a young student in Paris, of her time in Poland (which overlapped with the famous “Warsaw Autumn” in 1964), of her wild year in Brazil. At the same time, the book is illuminating for the glimpses it gives of the other pianists she knew (Cortot, Kempff, Loriod, Rosina Lhévinne, Cziffra) and from the second- and third-hand stories she passes on from them (Josef Lhévinne’s rivalry with Scriabin). Here, too, Forte is unflinchingly unsentimental. She doesn’t soften her picture of Rosina Lhévinne, who would, “each year … choose one of her students and offer her room and board in exchange for various services”—and who often made Forte feel like a “servant.” Yet Lhévinne’s positive qualities shine through nonetheless. Similarly, she shares, vicariously, Loriod’s sense of betrayal when Cortot refused to intervene when Lazare Lévy’s son was picked up by the Gestapo; yet this doesn’t cloud her appreciation for his contribution to her own development as a pianist.

In sum, the book reveals a wide range of sympathies (personal and aesthetic), as well as an infectious generosity of spirit—and reading it increases one’s sense of regret at the slenderness of her discography; other than a few clips on YouTube, this handful of CDs, about half the material coming from unedited live performances, is all we have. There is plenty to regret: There are no recordings with orchestra; there’s little Liszt and Beethoven; there’s no Granados or Schumann or Scriabin, no representation of the Latin American composers (like Guarnieri) she knew and admired, no Schoenberg. Still, what we have is choice: This material has gotten unanimous acclaim from a variety of Fanfare critics who don’t always agree; and listening to it all again for this overview, it sounds better than ever.

It would be easy to describe her, as many critics have (see Peter Burwasser in 23:1), as an exemplar of the French school. Easy—and not at all unfair. When you listen to her Debussy, her Ravel, and her Poulenc, for instance, it’s hard not to be struck by her grace, her limpidity and her flexibility (try, as but one example, the sculpting of the Piaf-like melody in the middle movement of the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos). Timbres seem more important than abstract structure, and those colors are more traditionally “impressionistic”—more glowing, less flinty—than those we get, say, from pianists like Pollini and Argerich. As is evident from the dash through the last movement of the Ravel Sonatine or the joy-drenched spectacle of Jeux d’eau, she can provide a magical kind of urgency without pressure (Burwasser rightly referred to her Ravel as “intensely affectionate”).

Still, if she’s a French pianist, she’s more in the line of Yvonne Loriod than of Robert Casadesus: Beneath the often elegant surfaces, there is plenty of muscle and crunch (especially evident in the two-piano performances). And especially given the breadth of her training—besides her work with Cortot, Kempff, and Loriod, she studied in Poland with Zbigniew Drzewiecki and at Juilliard with Rosina Lhévinne and Martin Canin—it’s probably best to think of her as … well, simply Madeleine.

So what are the prime qualities that emerge here? Certainly, her playing stands out for her handling of texture, in particular the way she simultaneously clarifies vertical structure and heightens rhythmic impulse. I’ve already had a chance to praise the way she elucidates the counterpoint in the opening of the Barber Sonata (27: 2)—but you can hear the same kind of impetuous polyphonic engagement in her handling of the rhythmic crosscurrents in the Toccata from Pour le piano and throughout her brilliantly layered excerpts from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. But it’s hard not to be struck by her exceptional handling of color, too; listen, for instance, to the exquisite gamelan effects in the first movement of the Poulenc, or to the evocative sense of mystery in the central panel of Debussy’s En Blanc et noir or to the play of light against water in Ravel’s “Ondine.” Or listen to the range of sound she draws from the 1881 Erard she uses on her Roméo Chopin recital.

More generally, though, these discs are marked by a consistent sense of affirmation. I don’t mean to suggest that the performances are consistently sunny; indeed, the bird calls in the second movement of the Rachmaninoff First Suite are distinctly threatening. But her playing is certainly more apt to be witty than glowering (the Chasins bonbon is a delight, as is the mock pomp of the Polonaise that rounds out the Arensky suite), more apt to be joyous than to be aggressive (try Debussy’s Poissons d’or), more apt to be luminous than steely (the Chopin Third Sonata avoids the edge and vehemence favored by Pollini and Kapell, offering a more supple sumptuousness). Most important, whatever she’s playing—from Beethoven at his most canonical to Glière at his hokiest—she plays with total commitment. In the end, perhaps, one can sum up by saying that the performances share the same qualities as the memoir—a wide range of sympathies, coupled with an infectious generosity of spirit.

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