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Sarah Beth Briggs
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Devoted to Debussy
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)
Clair de lune (Suite Bergamasque) (1890/1895) [5:22]
Feux d’artifice (Douze Préludes: Livre 2 no.12) (1910/1913)
Des pas sur la neige (Douze Préludes: Livre 1 no.6) (1910)
La Puerta del Vino (Douze Préludes: Livre 2 no.3) (1910/1913)
Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (Douze Préludes: Livre 1 no.7)
Pour les sonorités opposées (Douze Études No.10)
Estampes (1903) [14:20]
Berceuse héroïque (pour rendre hommage à S M
le Roi Albert I de Belgique et à sa soldats) (1914)
Morceau de concours (1905) [0:52]
Ballade (Slave) (1890) [6:50]
Pour le Piano (1896/1901) [13:58]
Pièce sans titre (1915) [1:21]
Élégie (1916) [2:20]
Roberta Rust (piano)
rec. July 2006, Wertheim Performing Arts Center, Florida International
University, Miami, Florida, DDD
CENTAUR CRC 2867
How could one not be devoted to Debussy? Whether it’s the simple romantic voice of Clair de lune, the soul-searching comment on the human condition Des pas sur la niege or the childlike delight in good humour, as in the Children’s Corner Suite? We’re all hooked in one way or another, and I can see why Ms Rust would want to share her enthusiasm with us, by giving us a wide variety of Debussy’s piano works, which form the backbone of his output.
Starting with a performance of such limpid beauty as she does with Clair de lune she draws one into the recital and into the complexities of four of the 24 Préludes - which contain some of Debussy’s best known piano pieces. Very wisely, Ms Rust has not gone for the most obvious choices. Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) is surely a depiction of a Bastille Day celebration; if you’ve ever been in France for this occasion you’ll recognise it immediately. It’s full of bright swirling sounds and ends, quietly, with a distant reminiscence of La Marseillaise after a downwards five octave glissando across the keyboard. La Puerta del Vino (The Gate of Wine) is a laid back habanera and Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (What the West Wind Saw) is a hair-raising scene, containing some of the most forceful piano writing Debussy ever undertook. These three Préludes receive very fine performances indeed - Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest having all the power and strength required for this manic picture. As I have written elsewhere, Des pas sur la niege (Footprints in the snow) is, for me, one of the most perfect compositions in all music, seeming, as it does, to sum up everything there is to understand about the human condition - we are all alone, basically. When played with the utmost simplicity it is as devastating in its loneliness as Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest is in its power. Here, Ms Rust fails to understand the emptiness, and when the harmony finally arrives, in the fifth bar, there is no release, no surprise. It’s just the entry of the harmony, and nothing else. This performance, shorn of rubato and with far too much expression, is a failure.
Debussy described his Twelve Études as "a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands". Pour les sonorités opposées (for opposing sonorities) receives a very subtle performance, full of rubato and every line clearly audible. The suite Estampes contains three of Debussy’s best known pieces - Pagodes (Pagodas), La Soirée dans Grenade (An evening in Grenada) and Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain) and it makes a delightful work. Ms Rust handles Pagodes very well, building a climax from within the music, allowing it to grow naturally. In La Soirée dans Grenade she maintains a steady habanera rhythm; only the faster section, with its repeated notes, gives her any trouble. Jardins sous la pluie isn’t quite as fleet of foot as one would like. Ms Rust’s left hand seems to hold things back a trifle, and there isn’t the sense of exultation at the end as there should be.
At the commencement of hostilities in 1914, Debussy had no desire to compose, and he said that he did not want a ballet which had been put aside "to be played before the fate of France has been decided, for she can neither laugh nor weep while so many of our men are heroically facing death." Although Debussy wanted to write something for the war effort he knew that if he were to write a march this would need loud, and very grand, music. As the composer claimed his piano works were very subtle and he strove to avoid "blatancy" he felt that this was not for him. But he finally succeeded in writing the Berceuse héroïque (Heroic Lullaby), dedicating it to His Majesty King Albert I of Belgium and his soldiers. It’s a peculiarly uninvolved work, and Ms Rust’s straightforward account shows up the paucity of invention. Morceau de concours is nothing more than a test piece, designed to give the examinee something to think about. Debussy achieves this, packing a great deal of pianism and music into a very short space of time. Ballade (Slave) is a very early piece - one of Debussy’s first published piano works - and, with hindsight, it’s really unworthy of him. It really doesn’t deserve a place in this collection. Pour le Piano is the first of Debussy’s great piano suites - it was preceded by the Suite bergamasque and a handful of smaller pieces. In three movements, Prélude, Sarabande and Toccata it has none of the impressionistic sheen we associate with him. Here he seems to be going for a big virtuoso piano work, using big, virtuoso ideas. Ms Rust gives it the big treatment which suits the music in some ways but she attacks the piano and gives it a bit too much heft, making the sound very steely and aggressive; it’s a bit unpleasant.
The final two pieces are miniatures from the end of Debussy’s life. Pièce sans titre - a work missing, if I remember correctly, from Roy Howat’s excellent recording of the complete piano music on Tall Poppies - is a rather wistful, lilting waltz. The Élégie is a withdrawn utterance, quite dark, but never despairing, which is remarkable, when you consider Debussy’s state at this time - he was suffering the onset of colorectal cancer which required morphine injections to relieve the pain. In the year of the composition of the Élégie he underwent one of the first colostomy operations ever performed and he described dressing in the mornings as "all the labours of Hercules in one".
It’s a downbeat ending to a recital which has much to recommend it. The programme is attractive and has been well chosen, Ms Rust’s playing is very good, if on occasion, I have had to question her interpretation. The recording is very bright, if, at times, a bit too much so, and it becomes, as in Pour le Piano, somewhat fierce. However, overall, these are very small points and if it’s a general collection of Debussy’s piano works you require I am happy to say that this just might fill that gap on your shelf.
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