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The Impressionists
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Images, Book I (1905) [16:13]
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
From ‘Roman Sketches’, Op.7 (1915) [12:29]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Jeux D’eau (1901) [5:53]
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911) [16:30]
Estampes (1903) [14:49]
Mary Towse-Beck (piano)
rec. Futura Productions, Boston, MA, USA (date not given)
Private release [65:54]

I’m an absolute sucker for the piano music of Debussy and Ravel. I was also delighted to see that this disc included some by the American composer Griffes whose music is gradually becoming more widely known … and about time too.
The disc’s title is The Impressionists which perfectly describes Debussy’s music for there can be no greater example of a composer who was able to ‘paint’ in music. His works are ravishingly beautiful with words being inadequate to describe it. One can well imagine the “little circle of water with a little pebble falling into it” as Debussy described the opening motif of Reflets dans l’eau, with the water then rippling gently to distort the reflection slightly. The key to interpreting Debussy’s music must surely be the ability to caress the piano keys and at just the right speed. This Mary Towse-Beck can certainly do. Hommage à Rameau, while it evokes the time of the great baroque composer (1683-1764) at the beginning then develops a more romantic mood with Debussy’s characteristically beautiful chords. Mouvement is more spirited than the other two Images from book 1 showing that his style of writing could still reflect at faster speeds the beauty for which he was so renowned.
Charles Tomlinson Griffes was America’s representative of musical impressionism. If the two pieces here from his Roman Sketches whet your appetite then there is much more to discover (Naxos; Naxos; Gasparo; Hyperion). The White Peacock, his most well-known work, was inspired by seeing one in a Berlin zoo. It perfectly describes the bird’s rather stately gait and its wondrous display when it opens its tail to reveal its fan; it was later orchestrated (Naxos; Chesky; Dorian). Nightfall is wonderfully evocative of the gradual onset of night with shadows appearing as the light fades. One can hear the influence the French Impressionists had on his music which has nothing of his native country about it. It is tragic that his life was cut short by influenza at the early age of thirty-five.
Maurice Ravel is the other great French impressionist composer whose music I often confuse with that of Debussy. That fact that caused some tension between the two composers since there was much debate about the source of his influence with implications as to the degree of indebtedness he owed to the older composer. It is a slur to suggest that Ravel was not an original thinker. He was certainly an original as any devoted fan will be quick to assert. In fact similar allegations were made in the opposite direction.
Jeux D’eau is as gorgeous in its way as Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau with the equally impressive description of the play of water. It was written four years earlier. It was interesting to read how contentious the première of his Valses Nobles et Sentimentales was when it was played by its dedicatee Louis Aubert. The series of concerts sponsored by the Société Musicale Independante ensured that the composers’ names were not revealed until after the works had been played. Thus the judgement had to be made ‘blind’; television programmes such as The Voice or The Taste are not as innovative as they may think. The anonymous work was greeted by catcalls and booing though it really is hard to understand why. If that is anything to go by then heaven knows how La Valse and Bolero were received. No wonder the same Paris audiences gave Stravinsky’s The Rite of spring such a rough ride two years later. The fact that so few discerned Ravel’s authorship says plenty about the listeners’ musical knowledge for it is difficult to imagine who else could have written it. These little waltzes are by turns energetic, gentle, elegant, amusing and always full of interest and innovation.
It’s back to Debussy to round off the disc. His Estampes begins with Pagodes reflecting the interest in things oriental that had held a fascination in Europe ever since the advent of chinoiserie in the mid-seventeenth century. Many composers included the sound of the East in their compositions though Debussy was one of the first. While there was controversy concerning the alleged influence Debussy had on Ravel the next work entitled Soirée dans Grenade shows the influence ran both ways. This piece reveals how Debussy drew on Ravel’s own Habanera for two pianos. It was written several years earlier. The score was borrowed by Debussy after hearing its first performance.
The disc is rounded off with Jardins sous la pluie which once again was likened to Ravel’s Jeux D’eau which predated it by two years. This fanned the same feelings of distrust between them. It is always a shame to read of such conflicts between composers. While it is true that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ the originality evinced in their works by each of these two brilliant composers has ensured them a place in the pantheon of great composers of their era.
The music is played with a real feeling for sensitivity and charm revealing the wondrous nature of the music by these three great piano Impressionists.
Steve Arloff