DEBUSSY: 12 Etudes for Piano; Suite bergamasque; Etude retrouvee; Suite bergamasque No. 2: Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’Isle joyeuse – Bennett Lerner, piano – Bridge

by | Dec 23, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

DEBUSSY: 12 Etudes for Piano; Suite bergamasque; Etude retrouvee; Suite bergamasque No. 2: Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’Isle joyeuse – Bennett Lerner, piano – Bridge 9211A/B, (2 discs) 45:25; 37:40 (Distrib. Albany) ****:

Debussy completed his Douze Etudes in 1915, when he was already beyond impressionism as such and was experimenting with abstract forms and chamber ensemble. He had promised to create a piece that would “treat the piano in an entirely new way,” in order to compensate for what he felt were the Romantic weaknesses in his Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra. Whether the colorful Etudes fulfill his promise, they receive excellently sonorous treatment in this Volume II of The Complete Piano Music by Bennett Lerner. Recorded 26-30 April 2006 by Judith Sherman, the Etudes beguile in their simultaneous presentation of a musical problem and its plurality of harmonic, rhythmic, and textural solutions. They call for hands with a large span, although their approach to keyboard sonority differs greatly from the Etudes tableaux of Rachmaninov. The French and British music hall as well as jazz are invoked from time to time, as in the finale from Pour les quartes. A piece like Pour les tierces can lull and terrify within a few bars of possibility. Pour les octaves asks for contrary pedal effects, with octaves in unison then fortissimo on both the damper and una corda pedal, what Debussy marks as sourdement tumultueux, stolidly tumultuous. The rarified quality of modal harmony has made everything in Debussy espessivo, as much as Beethoven had achieved the element of melos in even his most rhythmic works. Virile, resonant playing from Lerner, a very different aesthetic from that of Uchida, who brings more of the Schoenbergian, pointillistic viewpoint to her rendition.

The second, shorter disc is devoted to Debussy’s Romantic and colorist pieces, like his popular Suite bergamesque, devoted to the Italian Commedia dell’arte, with harmonic influences from Wagner, Massenet, and Faure. For one brought up on this music with Gieseking’s sound in mind, Lerner’s is a more athletic, direct, and piercing sound. The “second” suite consists of mostly A Minor pieces intended as a triptych around 1904. Unique to this blend is the so-called Rediscovered Etude (1915), which proves difficult for the hands, since every span exceeds an octave. In A-flat Major, the piece lacked tempo, key, and dynamic indications–as does much of Bach–so Lerner edited and adjusted the piece himself. A melange of style infiltrates the piece, and it becomes polyrhythmic in a couple of spots. Gieseking did record D’un une cahier d’esquisses – a piece which sounds like a keyboard study for La Mer and L’Isle joyeuse, which ensues. The Isle of Joy is an ambitious piece, quite dense and often thrilling, as Horowitz proved in recital. Nervous thirds make up much of its energies, but it later breaks into a Scottish war-dance and bombastic climax that must have constantly floored Ravel. Lerner relishes the jungle of sounds of which Debussy is lord and master, as though he were Henri Rousseau, painting before our eyes and ears. Gorgeous ideas by the French genius who still dominates modern musical thought.

— Gary Lemco

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