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)