Saturday, September 15, 2018

“Debussy, the Painter of Sound”


Robert Thies, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

To honor the centennial year of Claude Debussy’s death (from cancer, at the early age of 55 on 25 March 1918, while German guns shelled Paris around him), the pianist Robert Thies (left) gave us fortunate listeners in the South Bay a program devoted to the composer that sought to draw links between his music and art via commentary on and performances of some of Debussy’s most celebrated pieces. This was accompanied by a slideshow of paintings, in which Mr. Thies was careful to distinguish between those known to have been a conscious influence on the composer and those others that he, as interpreter, proposed as appropriate visual corollaries. 

The first item celebrated a specific literary connection rather than a visual one – an exceptionally sumptuous and contemplative account of the familiar Clair de lune third movement from Suite Bergamasque L.82, composed in 1890 and inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of some 30 years previously (thoughtfully printed in the program leaflet). This was, noted Mr. Thies, the earliest work in the recital and thus an appropriate place to start. 

The first visual pairing was between one of the Water Lilies series (right) by Monet, a founding father of French Impressionist painting, and Reflets dans l'eau, the first of Debussy’s Images, Book 1 L.105, though Mr. Thies noted that there was no evidence of a specific relationship between this painting and this piece (inter alia it’s worth noting that Debussy disliked, to put it no stronger, the term “impressionism” applied to music). His performance, as with every item in the recital, combined intimate identification with the composer’s sound-world along with the technical chops to encompass its most virtuosic flights, and – perhaps most importantly – the sensibility to delineate seamlessly the work's musico-dramatic arc. 

Next came an influence not from painting but from non-Western music: the Javanese gamelan ensemble (left) that Debussy first heard at the 1889 Paris International Exposition, sublimated in this instance into Pagodes, the first of the three Estampes L.108 of 1903. Mr. Thies noted Debussy’s instruction at the beginning that it should be played “almost without nuance”, and made a valiant attempt to observe this, though as the piece progresses the composer incorporates dynamic and expressive markings a-plenty, generating as much harmonic and dynamic tension and release as any other of the items included and thus demanding just as much “nuance” in the playing. 

The second of the three Estampes followed. La soirée dans Grenade is literally half a world away from the Orientalism of Pagodes, and here Mr. Thies expressed to the full the work’s wonderfully premonitory quality, as ominous in its way as Ravel’s La Valse, as well as its impulsive discursiveness – while we gazed at the swirling image of the dancer in Baille flamenco (right) by Ricardo Canals y Llambi. 

One of the very first pieces of music ever to get under the skin of my imagination was La cathédrale engloutie, No. 10 of the first Book of Préludes L.117 (1910), as sumptuously re-imagined for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski and endlessly replayed in this form by my young self on a long-lost open-reel tape-recorder.

I guess I never quite recovered from that youthful seduction and to this day the piano original for me somehow fails quite to do justice to the image of the legendary cathedral rising from its watery grave off the Breton island of Ys with ghostly priests chanting and bells clanging, all underpinned by the organ’s seismic rumble. Mr. Thies came as close as any pianist I have heard to the ideal and I particularly admired the acuity of his pedaling, supporting but never muddying the textures above. For me, however, the pictorial counterpart of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral (above left, one of many that he painted) was only tangential to the mood of this particular work. 

More apposite as visual accompaniment was James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket (right) to Feux d’artifice, the 12th and last of the second Book of Préludes L.123 (1913), in view of the subject-matter of both, as well as Debussy’s admiration for Whistler’s art and for his philosophy of aesthetics. The piece was again vastly different from the previous work, but Mr. Thies was as much the master of the fireworks’ explosive scintillations as of the sunken cathedral’s stately, mysterious progress. 

The penultimate listed item had another specific literary reference: the postscripted title of No. 4 in the first Book of Préludes, "Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir", is the third line lifted verbatim from Baudelaire’s 1857 poem Harmonie du soir, the whole of which was printed, like the Verlaine poem that inspired Clair de lune, in English translation in the leaflet.

Both the title of the poem, and the extracted line as title to the piece, imply a peacefully contemplative mood, but of neither is this true. The poem becomes increasingly suffused with blackness and bloody imagery and, in parallel, Debussy’s Prélude sustains a mood of inquietude and submerged bitterness through close-packed dissonant harmonies, as though the poem’s latter bleakness had bled into the texture of the music. Visually Mr. Thies added Van Gogh’s familiar Starry Night (above) and though again there’s no specific Debussy/Van Gogh corollary, its hallucinatory swirls were certainly appropriate. 

The 1904 standalone piece L’isle Joyeuse L.109 did have a specific artistic inspiration, the very un-Impressionistic L’Embarquement de Cythère (right) painted almost two centuries earlier by Jean-Antoine Watteau, which depicts a group of revelers on the mythical Mediterranean island of Cythera, birthplace of the goddess Venus.

Mr. Thies gave this glittering, exuberant seascape the most virtuosic performance of all, and for the visuals added a further element. Debussy greatly admired the English landscape master J. M. W. Turner, so it was appropriate that alongside the rococo elegance of the Watteau, Turner’s stormy vision of Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (left) be juxtaposed. 

After sustained and clamorous applause for this hugely enjoyable and insightful lecture-recital, Mr. Thies paid tribute to the indefatigable Jim Eninger for mounting the slideshow, and then returned for a perfectly chosen encore, the limpid elegance of the first of the two early Arabesques L.66 (1888-91). 

(N.B. The complex relationship between Debussy’s music and visual art is argued through in Leon Botstein’s paper “Beyond the Illusions of Realism: Painting and Debussy's Break with Tradition” from the 2001 Bard Festival Debussy and his World volume (ed. Jane F. Fulcher, Princeton UP, 2001).) 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, September 9 2018, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Artworks: Courtesy Jim Eninger; Robert Thies: website.

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