DEBUSSY: 12 Etudes; Estampes; Images I & II; Hommage a Haydn – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records (2 CDs)

by | Dec 30, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

DEBUSSY: 12 Etudes; Estampes; Images I & II; Hommage a Haydn – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records 7299/7300 (2 CDs) 42:19, 49:19 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Craig Sheppard (b. 1947) once more amalgamates for a Debussy CD two separate, “live” recitals from 15-16 April 2013 in Seattle’s Meany Theatre and performed on Sheppard’s Steinway D.  As each of the individual discs runs under an hour, we can savor the evolution of Debussy’s keyboard style 1907-1915 in quite digestible increments, a style that clearly synthesizes visual arts, literature, and musical tones. The influence of the painter Turner – and his increasing revelations of degrees of light – fascinated Debussy, who found in music a challenge to represent the four alchemical elements in kaleidoscopic sonic tapestries.

Sheppard begins with muscular, crisply defined readings of the Estampes of 1903.  The Pagodes shimmer in exotic scales and harmonies, but with a literalist clarity that runs counter to the more sensuous arabesques we hear from Arrau. The Andalusian post-card La soiree dans Granade evokes more of the sensual night-life, given its habanera rhythm over which Debussy implies the cante jondo (flamenco “deep song”) of Spain. The melos may well be religious, a devout saeta associated with Holy Week. Manuel de Falla always claimed that this one piano piece by a Frenchman taught Spanish composers more about their native music than all the musical textbooks put together!  An etude for touch and steadiness of pulse, Jardins sous la pluie varies a familiar children’s tune while evokes visual patterns of mostly gentle raindrops amidst leaves and puddles of swirling color.

The 1905 set of Images, Book I opens with the ubiquitous Reflets dans l’eau, which celebrates both water and Monet. Sheppard executes this study in rapid figures and parlando voicing with easy aplomb, the cascades suggestive, under which dark harmonies move like passing shades. The Steinway D tone proves resonantly rich here, courtesy of Dmitry Lipay, recording engineer and producer.  Those who love Walter Gieseking in this music will not relinquish their copies, but Sheppard communicates a healthy vital affection for this piece. A haunted sarabande, Homage A Rameau has had brilliant exponents in the likes of Gieseking and Casadesus. Again, the urge to a simple parlando hearkens wistfully to antique music in modal harmony. Whether the direction of the final piece in this livre, Mouvements, is Eastern, remains speculative, but the (slightly marcato from Sheppard) ostinato etude moves in pentatones, while the Dies Irae in the left hand suggests intimations of mortality. We would imagine this piece to have a special appeal to Sergei Rachmaninov.

The 1907 Livre II of Image presents, first, Cloches a travers les feuilles, the appeal of bells here sounding through forest leaves. The bells may relate to the Javanese gamelan orchestra Debussy admired in a Paris Exposition of 1889.  The convocation of arpeggios and whole-tone scales creates a sense of “movement without having moved,” to pun on a phrase from Ellison’s Invisible Man. Instead, Debussy fulfills Turner’s mission to reveal nuances of light, but without invoking “mere” chiaroscuro effects. More colors from a deeply subjective kaleidoscope ensue, in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, an “Eastern” moonscape over a deserted temple in which time and space have become suspended and stretched in whole and semi-tones, as in a Dali mind-scape. The “golden” luster of Paradise Lost returns, perhaps ironically, in Poissons d’or, Debussy’s musical evocation of lacquers of Japanese fighting-fish. The water they inhabit churns and splashes in variegated colors, occasionally spilling over onto our collective consciousness. The humor of Minstrels and other quasi-jazz pieces insinuates itself in this brilliant etude. 

Walter Gieseking candidly admitted that the Debussy Douze Etudes (1915) dedicated to the memory of Chopin represented the most difficult music he knew, and Gieseking could play anything. Debussy’s set divides itself into two groups of six, many of them exploratory in nature, pointing to possible developments in his style, had he lived. The first group explores technical facility; the second group addresses musical forms and procedures. The first “five-finger exercise” explodes into an improvised gigue. Pour les tierces has Sheppard’s executing thirds in watery colors. An extended serves as a vehicle for Pour les quatres, “the most uninteresting of intervals,” according to Debussy. The piece proves quite radical, avoiding almost any sense of repetition. After the knotty punctuations of the fourths, Pour les sixtes exploits legato figures, all in sixths, major and minor. The bell tones that close the piece might nod to London’s Big Ben. A boldly colored, extroverted waltz, Pour les octaves wants joy and abandon to dominate the onrushes of energy.  Bristling and scintillating colors mark Pour les huits doigts, meant to exclude the thumbs – but try the glissandi without them! –  and reveal the strength of the fingers.

Pour les degres chromatiques sounds like an extension of Chopin’s Op. 10, No. 4, a toccata of pure, plastic motion. A unique world of tone emerges in Pour les agreements by way of a slow gondola song. Sheppard makes it sound like a cross between late Liszt and erotic Scriabin. Parallel triads dance across the strange landscape, the ostinato figure as unnerving as it is regular. In five minutes of music, Debussy has sojourned into new territory. A “dialogue” study in delicacy of touch and graded dynamics, Pour les notes repetees aligns itself with the staccato aspects of The Children’s Corner but looks laterally to Prokofiev’s own Toccata. To say Mussorgsky’s Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle serves as a possible predecessor is not far-fetched. The lengthiest etude, Pour les Sonorities opposees, generates mysterious and pained evocations. A horn call from afar sounds out in a bleak night. Late in the piece the Dies Irae makes its presence felt. Contrastingly, the sun shines in the next etude, Pour les arpeges composes, a diaphanous relief in character marked lusingando, “coaxing.” Perhaps its element really is water, once more mixed with Turner’s gift for infusing degrees of light. Elements of the French music-hall likewise insinuate themselves into the stream of sound. Debussy concludes with a seductively extreme, ternary piece, Pour les accords, marked first by chords in contrary motion, more like modal Hungarian music from Kodaly and Bartok. The percussion yields to a middle section, slow and mysterious, that might have inspired Ligeti, Kurtag, and Berg for a hundred years.

As an encore, Sheppard plays – after having explained the “name” trick – the 1909 Hommage a Haydn, a semi-waltz-anagram on the letters of Haydn’s name, compressed into a provocative, three-minute fantasy of wit and charm.

—Gary Lemco

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