Francis Planté

Cite this article as:

Mark Ainley. (August 6, 2021). Francis Planté. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 13, 2024. https://ijm.education/piano/francis-plante/

As we’ve been exploring in The Piano Files posts, historical recordings provide a window into performance styles of previous generations and the individuality that was part of the musical culture in the past. We have heard some pupils of great composers like Liszt and Brahms and the great composer Rachmaninoff himself at the keyboard. Unfortunately, Chopin himself didn’t record, and nor did his pupils — though some of them lived long enough to do so, and fortunately, several of his grand-pupils recorded (we heard one playing a Chopin Nocturne “with authentic variants”).

One pianist who is particularly fascinating to hear is one who was not only born before Chopin died but was also old enough to actually remember hearing the legendary composer play! Furthermore, this artist also performed with chamber musicians who had played with Chopin himself. This was the French pianist Francis Planté, who was born in 1839 and died in 1934 at the age of 95.

Planté studied with the legendary teacher Antoine François Marmontel and also knew some Chopin pupils, in addition to having heard the composer himself. It must be noted that this does not mean that he necessarily played like Chopin, but it is fascinating to consider what he might have gleaned from his close proximity to the composer and his circle. He also knew Liszt, and he performed with Saint-Saëns; in fact, Arthur Rubinstein provided some fascinating recollections about hearing these two French musicians perform in a way that would certainly be considered unconventional in our time. Here, Rubinstein first discusses Saint-Saëns’s style of playing before discussing how the composer performed together with Planté:

It is remarkable that a pianist of Planté’s generation should have made recordings — and in very good sound. These discs were produced in 1928 when the technology in sound reproduction was vastly superior to even a few years earlier. That said, Planté was naturally not at his prime, as he was approaching his 90th birthday. Nevertheless, the recordings demonstrate that he kept his dexterity at an impressive level, although it was obviously not what one would expect from a younger artist. The renowned pianists Gaby and Robert Casadesus spent an afternoon with Planté at his home around the time that these recordings were made and reported that he played the Chopin Barcarolle remarkably well even at that age.

How these recordings came to be made is fascinating, too. Planté had given two concerts in a single day in May 1928 — he was 89 at the time! — when one of his friends suggested to the Columbia recording company that Planté’s playing be preserved on disc. As the aged French pianist was not interested in going to the studio, the company arranged for the equipment to be sent to his country home, and on July 3 and 4, 1928, a set of nine two-sided discs comprising 18 works was recorded and issued — a total of about 45 minutes. Some film of the artist was also made, albeit silent: you can see Planté playing some Chopin in the clip below, which also shows the recording equipment (the sound in the film derives from his disc recording and is not from the performance being shown):

Because recording technology at the time did not allow for editing to correct any mistakes, what you hear in Planté’s recordings (and all 78-rpm disc performances) are complete, undoctored performances (unlike heavily edited modern recordings). There are a few moments at which he is definitely less agile and precise, such as in a couple of the Chopin Etudesin fact, after Planté struggles a bit with the ending of one of these works, we can hear him swear in frustration! — but with the exception of these few passages, his playing is absolutely extraordinary. Even at his advanced age, he produced a gorgeous full-bodied sonority (he was playing on his own Érard piano), beautiful colors, and wonderful pedal effects, playing with astounding rhythmic vitality and buoyancy.

In Planté’s playing, we always hear great intelligence and aliveness in the music, some of which were written during or close to his lifetime (Chopin, Schumann, and Mendelssohn were all alive in his first years). His timing is quite natural, his rubato not as pronounced as that of many of his contemporaries, and his vivaciousness is quite infectious in some of the more upbeat compositions (such as the opening Berlioz work and the Schumann near the end of this selection). Also noteworthy is his clear but unobtrusive highlighting of left-hand harmonic support, an important element in 19th century pianism that is sorely overlooked by many performers today.

Remember as you listen to these performances that you are traveling back in time almost 100 years (93 to be precise) to hear the playing of a man born 182 years ago, who was alive at the time of Chopin, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. What a gift to be able to hear and learn from such incredible documents!

Conclusion

In the echoes of Francis Planté’s recordings, we discover a sonic time capsule that bridges the expanse between the 19th and 20th centuries. Born in 1839, Planté’s music reverberates with a living connection to the era of Chopin, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. As we step into the world of his performances, meticulously preserved in the advanced technology of 1928, we are granted a poignant glimpse into the artistry that flourished a century ago.

These recordings, produced when Planté was approaching his 90th year, offer a testament to the enduring power of music. The decision to record in his home, away from the constraints of a studio, adds an intimate dimension to the experience. The imperfections, a consequence of the technology’s limitations, become part of the narrative, reminding us of the authenticity of these historical artifacts.

Planté’s musicality transcends the passage of time. While moments of diminished agility surface, his performances exude a profound understanding of the compositions. The recordings capture his nuanced approach, revealing a pianist with a natural sense of timing and rhythmic vitality. Notably, his emphasis on left-hand harmonic support unveils a facet often overlooked in modern interpretations.

Revisiting Planté’s legacy is not a mere archaeological endeavor but an encounter with a living tradition. His ability to evoke a rich sonority and infectious musical spirit, even in his advanced age, attests to a pianist deeply embedded in the soul of his craft. These recordings, a gift to contemporary listeners, serve as a reminder of Planté’s invaluable contribution to the ever-evolving tapestry of classical music.

In the resounding notes of Planté’s piano, we find more than historical documentation; we discover a resonant echo from the past—a reminder that the language of music, spoken by hands long stilled, continues to speak to us across the ages.

Website: thepianofiles.com

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