I chanced upon Gaspard Dehaene at the Paris Philharmonie in January 2018, playing Liszt's E-flat Piano Concerto. He caught my attention at many levels, a refined, aesthetic young man, I reviewed in Classical Source, concerned to take time: “he lets cadences delay and speak with Romantic naturalness, and his sense of harmonic clarity, bass notes in deep-voiced sonorous support, makes for a rich, emotional canvas.” Born to a cultured French family – his mother is the pianist Anne Queffélec – and benefitting from a cradle of teachers including Bruno Rigutto, Denis Pascal, Jacques Rouvier and Rena Shereshevskaya (bringing to bear the Moscow lineage of Vlassenko and Flier) – he's also taken advice from Alfred Brendel – his is a spirit from another age, a lyricist come to wander our dreams.
“Voyages across lands and seas, across the time of life”, Vers l'ailleurs (Towards elsewhere) – a concept album – is prefaced by lines from Dehaene's grandfather, the humanist Henri Queffélec (1910-92), taken from his novel Un recteur de l'île de Sein, published in 1944. “The long and sinuous recesses of a landscape of cool clearness, of rocks, of limpid waters and of pure sounds”; “Harmonies and correspondences were born again from yesteryear: the sun's colour suddenly chimed with the sand's shade, the bright rays answered the sparkle of the quartz flakes. The fragments of a magic mirror, dispersed among the banks, were suddenly found again.”
Queffélec was a sage of Brittany and the sea. The sea – the octaves of pianistic sea that veined my student days: Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie, Frank Bridge's Sea Idyll, the surge of Liszt's St Francis walking the Messina Strait – is central to Rodolphe Bruneau-Boulmier's Quand la terre fait naufrage (When the earth is shipwrecked), the conclusion of a maritime suite dedicated to Dehaene inspired by titles drawn from Queffélec. Born in 1982, Bruneau-Boulmier, a producer and presenter at France Musique since 2006, explores a rich, free-wheeling world of sounds and images, here iridescent, there the bottomless grey of an ocean under dark skies; half-memories sailing the west wind, “in the distance the toll of a sunken cathedral attempting to suspend time.” In epic Gallic tradition, it's a tone poem, a fantasy that arrests and convinces; the resources of the instrument at the service of a powerfully questing imagination. Dehaene, an unidentified but clearly noble piano at his disposal, gives a compelling, virtually orchestral performance, his bass end growling, thunderous, sensuous, his treble flashes bright as summer lightning, his middle registers voiced with eerie doublings and twilight sanctity, not a crude intervention anywhere. The music calls for spatial vastness, and he gives it that.
An artist who traverses the intensity of late Schubert, the brilliance of Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody – calling-card of the Soviet greats – and the speech of Schubert-Liszt must ideally be a musician, virtuoso and dramatist. Dehaene does not disappoint. His Schubert-Liszt is unhurried and beautiful, emphasising phrasing and thread. Aufenthalt (Schwanengesang: “Surging river, roaring forest, immovable rock, my resting place”) stresses the melancholic and impassioned, the touch draped and tensioned. “Not too fast, but powerful” stipulates the score. Auf dem Wasser zu singen is a songful Moderato, not as measured as Bolet (1983), the slurred semiquaver couplets shaped with awareness but not fussily. Dehaene encourages the music to grow and blossom, the culminant head-thrown-back exultation, grandly pedalled – “Tomorrow let time again vanish with shimmering wings, as it did yesterday and today, until, on higher, more radiant wings, I myself vanish from the flux of time” (Richard Wigmore) – is glorious, the decay extended. The nuances of Viennese garret and street life caught in the little B-minor Hungarian Melody – unpublished and unheard until 1928, extraordinarily – are intoxicatingly water-coloured, the major-mode offsets and sub-voices whispered to the edge of tragedy.
Liszt in 'Roman period' Hispanic mood is a pianistically commanding dazzle of rhetoric, song and dance. Dehaene sets out to give us a series of visceral paintings and heat graphs, the Folies d’Espagne and Jota aragonesa of old European pedigree – Farinelli, Marais and Corelli having celebrated the dark, sarabande-like former, Glinka the bright latter – delineated through countless subtleties of coloration, rubato and expressive leaning. Black, reds and golds never seem far away, the swagger is manly, the courtship flirtatious and gowned beneath mantilla. This is a reading up there with the best (the Russians in particular), the temperament characterful, the pianism honed with elegance and bravura.
Among the tests of the repertory, Schubert's 'big' A-major amounts to an Alpine ascent of deceptive hollows and treacherous slopes. Dehaene maybe a Romantic, but he's a strongly intentioned Classicist too – witness a recent Dijon account of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto. This performance, from a recital in Limoges (6 November 2018), displays an authoritative, thinking command of style and pianism, accuracy of articulation and texture to the fore. Tempos are bent and stretched at reposeful junctures, urging onwards in developmental conversation; second-subject groups yield; staccatos are not always staccatos – yet never at the expense of structure or civilised taste. Schubert's tonal and harmonic sidesteps, his motivic writing and expressive juxtapositions, serenely leave their mark.
The first movement (omitting the exposition repeat) takes off from bar 22, never to look back. Among many virtues, two particularly catch the ear: the finely gauged re-transition and point of recapitulation, a positively symphonic moment of theatre; and the smoky, pedalled vista of the coda – the closing bar left hanging long (Dehaene likes his cadences and chords), a wraith of Beethoven somewhere in the wings (the arpeggiations of the ‘Tempest’ Sonata, Opus 31/2). Nearer Uchida than the fever of Eschenbach, the gondola song of the F-sharp minor Andantino spins a lonely magic, the central hallucination it frames spiralling then dying with nowhere to go. For an instant Schubert, thirty-one, close to the end, materialises before us. The Scherzo is vivacious; the Finale urbane until the storms kick in, tackled with bucolic gruffness, the whole crowned by a proud finish. Pedigree piano-playing, mind and mechanism, pulse and pause, in discursive, sonorous accord.
This is a very personal release. Whatever career Gaspard Dehaene aspires to, whether or not he finds the major label and representation he deserves, I doubt if he'll record anything again quite so private or meaningful. It's a commitment as musical as familial. Unfettered, he plays as he wishes. Distinctively, he opts for a filmic audio resonance – one of clouds and clearing clouds, tender dawns and tempestuous dusks – to illumine his vision. Triggering currents and images, it's a sound, subjectively, that consumes one, air and sunbeams piercing the forest floor, ships of faraway horizons anchored to the ocean deep. “Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau”, penned Baudelaire a year before Debussy's birth: “To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!”