I was once doing a talk and someone asked me whether there was any music I used to love that I had "gone off". The answer was twofold. First, mostly it's the opposite. There's plenty of music that I'd never "got", but that I'd either learned to love or suddenly found that I may have loved all along. Bartok, for instance, or Ligeti - and, this year, Boulez and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Secondly: no, I've never gone off Korngold, if that's what you meant.
But now I've made a startling discovery. I am going off someone. I have no idea why. It's not because it's his anniversary year and he's had overkill - because he hasn't. I've always adored him. I've played heaps of his piano music and always found it astonishing. Now, though, I'm back at my piano after a long break, looking for something to learn that demands the attention of intensively applied blood, sweat and tears. And I got out my book of Debussy to play through some pieces I learned as a student - Estampes, Suite bergamasque, Images II - and I just couldn't get into it. Not at all.
I'm horrified. These were my party-pieces. I love Claude to bits, or I'm supposed to. And now - ? Pagodes and its Chinoiserie left me cold and flat and wondering why I bothered. The Spanish thing, which when I was 20 seemed the sexiest work evah, feels contrived. Suite bergamasque - well, a tad pointless, and in places, especially the first movement, not even terribly good: as if he's boxed himself into a corner, or just wants to irritate us with a spot of fancy fingering. Sensual, yes, in a superficial kind of way. But the emotional depth has, it seems, gone AWOL.
La Mer is another matter, especially with Rattle conducting. L'apres-midi d'un faun remains magical - I hope. Jeux is sophisticated and impressive, the Nocturnes for orchestra likewise. And I respect Pelleas with doffed Symbolist hat. But the piano book is going back in the cupboard. Been there, done that, passed the exams.
Because, when you hold Debussy's piano music up beside Chopin's, there's no comparison.
I've been bashing, very badly, through the Polonaise-Fantasie (that Trifonov video was quite a spur). It leaves me more astonished every time. What is he doing? You want to take it to pieces to see how it works. What are these key relationships, these bizarre harmonies - A sharp? C flat? - and the little motivic connections that rise from nowhere to weave the substance together? What is this strange history he spreads before us? Was that harp-ripple the shape and size of Chopin's own hand? What is this brief song of the angel of death in the middle, appearing as if from nowhere?
It's a page-turner plot, a great fantastical dream-journey, full of revelations, reappraisals of its own material, thoughts, questions and breaththrough answers that carry you further in terms of emotional development than you'd ever imagined you could go in a mere 12-15 minutes (depending who's playing...) [UPDATE: Cortot takes less - just under 10 mins - but some of it is a car wreck]. It's uncomfortable every moment of the way, such is its self-awareness and its intimations of its own mortal danger. It's strong in its acknowledgement of human fragility and the simultaneous ability to light up the sky. The composer, the pianist and the instrument become one to an almost terrifying degree.
I won't be able to play it properly in a month of Sundays. But I would gladly die trying.
Clawed Depussy remains Solticat's favourite composer, of course, along with Gabriel Furry and Darius Milhauw.
Here is the ultimate Polonaise-Fantasie, from Grigory Sokolov.