I was lucky enough to attend the finals of the 15th Orléans Intenational Piano Competition in France in 2022. The winner was a deserving one (I frequently disagree with juries, so it was good to be in accord this time!): Lorenzo Soulès. You can find my report on the competition overall in the June 2022 issue of International Piano magazine.
Here's a taster for the disc:
Soulès' Debussy is perfectly posed. In an interview in the disc documentation, he says that in his opinion,
Debussy was one of the great pioneers of modern music of the Twentieth Century. He influences a whole generation of composers after him, such as Olivier Messiaen, who's also featured on the CD. As Tristan Murail and George Benjamin were both Messiaen's students, we can weave together the threads of a French heritage starting with Debussy and stretching through teh Twentieth Century. Our aim .. was to build a programme built on teh French tradition of sound.
Soulès' Debussy is remarkably wide-ranging - this is no pastel-shaded solo smudge but a variegated masterpiece, his "Mouvement" finale of Images I a close relative to “Feux d'artifice” from Préludes II. That's not to say there is no atmosphere here: his invocation of Debussy's bells in “Cloches à traverse les feuilles” is a miracle of piano colour, and his ability to maintain artifice as Debussy tributes a previous generation of French composers is magnificent. In the absence of the performance on this disc, here’s Soulès in Metz in October 2023 as part of their “Jeunes Talents” series in the “Hommage à Rameau” from Book I of Images:
Soulès’ “Et la lune descent sur le temple qui fut” is a miracle of delicacy on the b-Records disc, his “Poissons d’or” mobile, virtuoso in the finest sense of the word, each note perfectly articulated and yet set within each gesture, each gesture itself part often greater whole.
It is a worthwhile exercise to compare the first of the Images , “Reflets dans l’eau” with that of Marius-François Gaillard (1900-73) in a transfer of an Odéon original from July 20, 1928, though, and indeed we enter another world. It's quite interesting that these recordings, rather than being in opposition to each other, point out Debussy the Janus-faced. Gaillard's “Reflets” is very much a product of its time, perfectly placed within the stream of French piano music; Soulès (partly because of disc placement) points forwards, towards the likes of Messiaen, Murail and Manoury:
We move closer to the present day next with the music of Olivier Messiaen, two pieces from the Catalogue d'oiseaux. First, “Le trequet rieur,” Soulès’ touch magnificently varied, from ultra-staccato to legato as well as timbrally, from feather-light touch to martellato. The two pieces from Catalogue on the disc are nicely contrasted, the more gestural “L’alouette calmorelle’ almost playful in demeanour. This is what Messiaen sounds like from someone suffused in contemporary music. Soulès’ grasp of Messiaen's language is complete.
Here is Soulès’ complete semi-final in Orléans, which included “Le merle bleu” from Catalogue as its first piece:
It is good to have some Tristan Murail here - a core member of the French Spectralist School, Murail's works are tightly organised and yet fantastical in effect. Nowhere more so, possibly, than in Le Mandragore, a pianistic exploration of the mandrake (a plant whose root resembles the form of a human - hence John Donne, in his Song - Go catch a falling star, asks the protagonist to undergo a sequence of impossibilities, including “Go get child with mandrake root” before finding a woman who is “true, and fair”). Here's Soulès’ performance from the disc:
There have been several previous recordings of Murail’s piece: Tomoko Yazawa (via CD-Baby); Prodromos Symeonidis (Telos, Hommage à Messiaen); Marilyn Nonken (Metier) and Dominique My (Accord), but I find Soulès completely convincing. The piece is hypnotic, it draws the listener in despite - or perhaps because of - its complexities: it is constructed as a spiral centred on several ostinati of rhythm, colour, and timbre.
The two Etudes from Philippe Manoury's Second Book of Etudes (2021) are masterpieces, and Soulès seems to understand them from the inside out. These two, “Dérèglementnts” and “Réseaux,” form the first two of the projected second moo, the later more fluid than the former.
You can hear his performances at the competition in the video above. In the first, “Dérèglements” (Unbalancing) the composer works on three levels: low-level trills, musical leaps and repeated chords. Each has its turn to interrupt (unbalance) the others. In the second part, a chorale emerges; the other elements orbit it, but fail to destabilise it. The piece is, therefore, a sort of drama, and Soulès projects this perfectly. Interestingly, in preparation for the disc, he worked with Manoury (the contestants were barred from doing so prior to the competition) and his interpretation deepened accordingly. “Réseaux” (Networks) is a story in interconnecting lines. A lovely aspect of this study is how the line can leave slight echoes, as if they leave an imprint fo some kind. The music is fascinating; as was the piece of Manoury's that was used in the finals (but not written expressly for the competition), the Passacaille pour Tokyo, for piano and ensemble of 1994. It was indeed Soulès” performance of this that was the finest in the hall that afternoon. You can hear Soulès' finals performances (Manoury Passacaille; Falla's rarely-heard Fantasia Baetica, and Messiaen “Le baiter de l'infant Jésus” from Vingt Régards) below:
Finally, George Benjamin's Piano Figures of 2004. Written for Pierre-Laurent Aomard, this set of ten short pieces - seven of which were expanded by the composer to forth orchestral ballet Dances Figures (premiered Chicago, 2005). Benjamin's affinity for beauty has always been present, and this short set of relatively technically undemanding pieces is given a fine, expressive performance by Soulès. Listen to the way Soulès teases the opening of the third movement, “In the Mirror,” before embarking on a clear dance section:
Soulès’ performance of George Benjamin is as assured as those of Messiaen, Debussy, Murail and Manoury. This is a disc to treasure, but it also announces a pianist of real talent.
X image of Lorenzo Soulès © Sihoo Kim.
The disc is available at Amazon via this link.