Showing posts with label Claude Debussy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Claude Debussy. Show all posts

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Stop dumbing down Debussy!

Google has a Clair de lune doodle to celebrate Claude Debussy's birthday today. Somehow I have the feeling that our beloved Claude's 151st anniversaire is receiving almost more attention than his 150th. I doubt, though, that he really did ride a pennyfarthing. (We know Chausson had a bicycle, but we wish that he hadn't.)

Here's a quick birthday high-horse moment: at some stage we need to leave behind, once and for all, the notion that Debussy was "an impressionist composer". He inclined more towards symbolism: the hushed world of ideas in which nothing can ever be taken at face value, but stands as an encapsulation of something else. La Mer, for instance, is at core not about the sea... Listen to Simon Rattle conducting it: this becomes clear, for is it not rather the deeper forces of nature within ourselves that are undergoing those changes of light as time passes, the dialogue with our counterparts (wind/waves - not), and the refulgent storms in the heart and blood...

Still, attaching any -ist or -ism to Debussy is to reduce him to a fraction of his real significance. Would you do that to Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Zola? No fewer ideas exist within Debussy, but his language happens to be that of music...

The continual dumbing-down of Debussy - the all-too-widespread view of him as pretty impressionist, fine colourist, hot lover, etc - does not even begin to scratch the surface of his life and work, let alone his intelligence, his wide cultural references, his continual willingness to explore and experiment and move forward. His sophistication of thought, language, structure, finesse, texture, instrumentation and sheer imagination is second to none.

Meanwhile, our changing times are highlighted in fine fashion by a glimpse of this 1965 movie by Ken Russell, The Debussy Film. I doubt anyone would make a film like this now, yet there's a charm and a vividness about its vision that might just be irresistible, given half a chance. See it here:

And my top ten Debussy recordings? Difficult, but here's a selection...:

La Mer - Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle

Etudes pour piano - Mitsuko Uchida

Images pour piano - Zoltan Kocsis

Preludes pour piano, complete - Krystian Zimerman

Pelleas et Melisande, complete opera, DVD - Welsh National Opera/Pierre Boulez, directed by Peter Stein

String Quartet - Quatuor Ebene

Violin Sonata - Philippe Graffin (violin) and Claire Desert (piano) (in the disc that inspired my Hungarian Dances...)

3 Nocturnes, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, etc - various, conducted by Pierre Boulez

Children's Corner - Alfred Cortot

Songs - 'Clair de lune' (Verlaine) et al - Natalie Dessay (soprano), Philippe Cassard (piano)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gone Chopin, Bach in a minuet, but without Clawed Depussy

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.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Music + Art = Magic?

Spent Wednesday morning at the preview of the new exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, talking to the curator MaryAnne Stevens and the French conductor Fabien Gabel about the correlation of music and art in the Impressionist era, and why it was that it took about 20 years for composers to cotton on. Then we had a go at matching some of the paintings with appropriate music...Above, Degas's Dancers in a Studio; an exercise in form and perspective made up of images of preparation. Debussy Etudes?

Results are up now on the new and still developing music portal intriguingly entitled Sinfini, which word seems to suggest an infinite symphony of sins... In reality, though, the site is clean, enthusiastic and friendly, while the most sinful thing about this assignment is probably Duparc's gorgeous setting of Leconte de Lisle. The exibition, at the RAA's Sackler Wing, opens tomorrow.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My first night shift

 I'd never ventured to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift series before, having assumed that I'd be a bit over-the-hill for the target age group - as you know, I'm 29... But the promise of hearing Simon Rattle (left) conducting the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer was irresistible, so last night your intrepid writer set out into the monsoon with mac and brolly to see what all the fuss was about.

Here's what happens. The OAE finishes its first concert of the evening - normal stuff - about 9pm. As the old audience flocks out of the RFH foyer, the new one flocks in. There's live music by the bar, in this case a folk-rock singer whose identity eludes me, with violinist and bassist; a lively atmosphere ensues as everyone meets their friends and enjoys the party feel. Then there's a short concert with announcer and chit-chat with the performers from 10pm to 11pm, and finally a DJ sets up in the foyer until midnight.

A range of creative ideas helps to recruit audience members: you can get a ticket for just £5 with the TextTicket scheme, or there's a four-for-three offer, and now the OAE has launched a venture for the Night Shift in the form of a Loyalty Card, with which you can save up a stamp for each NS concert you attend and eventually exchange them, at various levels, for a beer mat, a pint glass or an invitation for drinks backstage with the performers before the show. More details on their website.

Having so said, we didn't get off to the best start. Folk-rock doesn't always do it for me and my companion for the evening pronounced himself utterly allergic. Friends assured us that they'd heard worse, but when the no doubt very nice and very good singer started asking people to sing along, we slunk off and cowered with a glass of something at the furthest-away table we could find.

On the one hand, there's an argument that we should just have gone to the 7pm concert. Much more in-hall music, including Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande and the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto on an Erard with Pierre-Laurent Aimard - and no monkey business. But on the other hand, the atmosphere inside the hall for the 10pm concert was something rather special.

A guest presenter, surrounded by welcoming pink light, got Simon and members of the orchestra talking about the music and the historic instruments on which they were playing it. Simon is a persuasive speaker at the best of times - and though a 'normal' audience might read some of what he said in programme notes, the impact is altogether more striking when it comes straight from the maestro's own chops. The flautist talked about why she loves playing Debussy with Simon; the horns demonstrated the difference in expected playing technique between 1904 and 2012; the oboist enthused about his unusual instrument. There's a sense of sharing, an atmosphere of downright friendliness, that really does make a difference. The end result is that the Night Shift audience could well have ended up much better informed than the 7pm one.

Despite the presenter's exhortations that we should all feel relaxed and were free to leave and re-enter the hall any time during the performance, only one person did so. Otherwise, the Night Shift audience was as quiet as the promenaders. I have it on good authority that the 7pm audience had had a cough-fest. We didn't. Perhaps everyone was as mesmerised by Simon's way with Debussy as I was. He has such an instinct for the pacing, ebb and flow of this music, for the confluence of image and symbol (we never heard the word 'Symbolism' in the intros - maybe we could, someday, as its use is not yet illegal) and the sheer refulgent gorgeousness of it that you could be swallowed up by its beauty and wish never to emerge.

Extra fascination in the use of instruments of Debussy's time: that super-astringent oboe was something you'd recognise from historical recordings; the horns and other brass were finer, lighter, mellower; the flute had a darker, stiller timbre, suggestive of pan-pipes; the gut strings add seductive colour and make a subtle difference to the balance and blend. Simon pointed out that he'd never heard Debussy on original instruments before this tour; it's not generally done. He compared the instruments' tones to the combination of flavours in a Thai meal: a squeeze of lime juice, a smattering of chilli.

In the end, I wasn't too long-in-tooth for the Night Shift. People of all ages attended; the youngest I saw must have been about seven, the oldest probably about 77. In between, plenty of 30-and-40-somethings besides 20-somethings. A younger audience than most concerts, yes. But this was about more than being young. This was an audience that wanted something a little different and knew where to find it.

Personally, I'd enjoy a halfway house. A concert in which the conductor and players talk to the audience - not at the expense of playing time, but enough to make a connection. In which the lighting is good - dark in the auditorium to encourage concentration, but soft and warm on stage. In which people feel relaxed enough to move about, but choose not to because they want to hear the music. In which you can take in something to drink, including hot chocolate when soaked through. I'd prefer an earlier start to my mix-and-match event, too - it's annoying to have to run out at the last note to catch one of the few trains that go your way at that hour. And if there's to be foyer music, it would be nice if it could be something idiomatic provided by members of the orchestra we're about to hear, rather than a disconnected genre.

I didn't stay for the DJ. Had to get that train... And besides, after the glories of La Mer I didn't fancy any more sound. If you've just heard Simon Rattle conducting Debussy, you want to hold the impression of it as long as humanly possible. You don't like it to be shoved aside by amplified pop. (Proofing my draft of this post, I noticed, by the way, that I mistyped that last remark as "amplified poop". Nuff said.)

But overall, full marks to the OAE not just for magnificent playing but also for creative thinking; and for their willingness to experiment with the new, as well as resuscitating the old in the form of those spot-on historic instruments.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hello, is that the Paradise Garden? Please could I speak to Ken Russell?

Come back, Ken Russell, and please, please have another shot at Debussy? My latest post for The Spectator Arts Blog casts an eye over the late, great filmmaker's approach to two of this year's big anniversary boys: Delius and Debussy. One worked. The other didn't, but should have. Read the whole thing here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Debussy's bustin' out all over

Here we's the Debussy anniversary! A grand 150 years since the birth of (almost) everyone's favourite French composer, a figure without whom the entire face of 20th-century music would have been utterly different. I've written two relevant pieces which are both out today.

First, here's my interview with Michael Tilson Thomas from this week's JC. The American conductor is presiding over the LSO's Debussy series which starts next week. His family background is truly fascinating, though: the American Yiddish theatre proved a rich and radical field for artistic development of many kinds, including his.

And here, from The Independent, is an interview with the lovely Noriko Ogawa, who is doing a Debussy festival in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic, opening tonight. The influence of Japanese culture - 'Japanoiserie', at any rate - on Debussy was vital; and in return, his music has made a major impact on the Japanese composers of today. The piece has been somewhat chopped, though, so below is the director's cut. Plus a video interview with Noriko from Cardiff, recorded last summer.

Jessica Duchen

In 1862 Claude Debussy was born in Paris: the biggest musical celebrations of 2012 will mark his 150th anniversary. ‘Reflections on Debussy’, a major new festival based at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, promises to be one of the most unusual takes on this seminal French composer and his legacy. It unites past and present, Europe and Asia, and a pianist and orchestra who, having been caught up in Japan’s devastating earthquake, are lucky to be here at all.

On 11 March 2011 the Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa was waiting for a train in Tokyo when the platform began to shake under her feet. At the same moment, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, on tour in Japan, was travelling in a bus, which was crossing a bridge. Miraculously, they all escaped unscathed. Now they are working together, exploring the links between Debussy and Japanese culture.

The links are more serendipitous than one might imagine. “It was in the year of Debussy’s birth, 1862, that a group of 30-40 Japanese diplomats came to Europe for the first time,” Ogawa points out. “They would have been wearing full traditional regalia, complete with swords, and they must have looked incredibly exotic to the populations of Paris and London.” In those days, Japan was still “closed”, mysterious to the outside world, more distant even than India and China. And as the century progressed, a vogue for Japanese culture swept through France, carrying Debussy with it.

Ogawa suggests that Debussy had a natural affinity with deep underlying qualities in Japanese art, especially the ukiyo-e “Floating World” woodblock prints by artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. They likewise made a profound impact on western artists of successive generations – first Manet and Monet, later Gauguin, Lautrec and Matisse.

“Japanese art then used a very deformed perspective,” Ogawa points out. “Artists picked out the aspects they wanted to emphasise. For instance, if a man is looking furious in one Floating World picture, his face is much bigger than the rest of his body – just to reinforce the sense that he is angry.” It is not a vast step from there to the fantastical perspectives of Symbolism, a movement absorbed in subjective, dreamlike and suggestive atmospheres rather than literal images. Debussy associated himself with this artistic movement more than any other.

The cover picture on the first printed copies of his orchestral work La Mer – effectively a kind of sea symphony – is Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanegawa. “It brings out the strength of the sea, exaggerating this rather than being perfect like a photograph,” says Ogawa. “That deliberate deformation of perspective creates a stronger impression. Debussy does this, too, in his music. He broke all the rules!”
Other pieces by Debussy seem to share the formality, restraint and concision of Japanese art. 

“You need a strong sense of control on the keyboard to play Debussy,” says Ogawa. “You can’t be overemotional or drown yourself in it; you have to be objective and keep searching for the right quality and beauty of sound. It’s the opposite of Brahms and Beethoven’s rock-solid Germanic music. After the incredibly emotional Romantic era, Debussy opens the window to let the fresh air in.” 

The most Japanese of his works, she suggests, is ‘Poissons d’or’, the final piano piece from Images, Book II – directly inspired by exquisitely wrought images on a Japanese lacquer cabinet depicting koi carp.

Debussy’s fondness for Japanese culture was first sparked at the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris in 1889; there, too, he encountered the music of the Indonesian gamelan, which also made a deep impression on him. He never travelled to the Far East, but his entire personality predisposed him to the absorption of influences rich and strange. Debussy, whom some considered Bohemian and non-conformist and whose personal life encompassed some very public scandals, was sensitive to a remarkable degree. His unceasingly enquiring mind allowed him to draw on innumerable sources for his music: everything was fair game, from the poems of Baudelaire to the novels of Dickens, from the drawings of Arthur Rackham to circus performances by acrobats. Perhaps his affinity for Japanese art was innate, or perhaps there was even more to it: “It’s almost as if he was able to tune in to its wavelength, like a radio,” says Ogawa.

Highlights she has devised for ‘Reflections on Debussy’ include a traditional Japanese tea ceremony before she performs the composer’s Etudes for piano, and a flower ceremony before the Préludes; and the series also features works by the late Toru Takemitsu and a younger Japanese composer, Yoshihiro Kanno, who were both profoundly influenced by Debussy’s musical language.

Ogawa has commissioned a set of three piano pieces from Kanno, each of which involves a different traditional Japanese percussion instrument. For instance, A Particle of Water employs Myochin Hibashi chopsticks: these are manufactured by a craftsman from the 54th generation of a family that once made swords for Samurai warriors and are constructed from the same metal as those legendary weapons. Ogawa couldn’t resist adding Chopsticks itself to the programme, though.  

Joking aside, though, the festival is part of her post-earthquake therapy. Born and brought up in Japan, she thought she was used to earthquakes, but this one was different: “The horizontal movement told us that this was something much stronger,” she recalls. “It went on for 90 seconds, which is really long. After that the electricity went off, everything shut down and in the north of the country the tsunami arrived very quickly. People there lost everything – homes, businesses, livelihoods – in just half an hour.”

Dazed, confused, and convinced that Japan was facing apocalypse, she lost interest in playing the piano until she decided to go to America and give a fundraising concert to help the victims. So far, she has raised more than £21,000 for the British Red Cross’s aid to Japan; and additionally she has organised the design of some greeting cards – involving black cats, pianos and Debussy, who used to frequent a club named Le Chat Noir – which she sells at her concerts to benefit the Japan Society.

“There are still aftershocks even now,” she says. “But I don’t want to talk about disastrous things too much, because people are trying to be positive. I’d just like to offer something that people will enjoy, feeling at the same time they’re doing something to help.”

The intuitive Debussy could well have approved.

Reflections on Debussy begins on 20 January at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Box Office: 0161 907 9000