DEBUSSY: Complete Piano Music, Vol. I = Danse bohemienne; Deux Arabesques; Intermede; Le Petit Negre; Reverie; Danse; Children’s Corner Suite; Preludes, Book II – Bennett Lerner, piano – Bridge

by | Apr 28, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

DEBUSSY: Complete Piano Music, Vol. I = Danse bohemienne; Deux Arabesques; Intermede; Le Petit Negre; Reverie; Danse; Children’s Corner Suite; Preludes, Book II – Bennett Lerner, piano – Bridge 9186,  70:05  (Distrib. Albany) ****:

From every sonic evidence, this projected set of the complete Debussy piano oeuvre is going to be an excellent acquisition. Lerner, a pupil of Claudio Arrau, Robert Helps, and Arminda Canteros, comes to the Debussy tradition quite legitimately, sporting a rounded and rich piano tone (2005, SUNY Purchase, courtesy of Judith Sherman) and a variegated, delicate palette which easily hearkens both to Arrau and Walter Gieseking. Attuned to the resonant eroticism which underlies all of Debussy’s experiments in color and rhythm, Lerner contributes his own sense of dynamic shades and tempo rubato to Debussy’s often fastidious demands for color combinations and digital pressures.

Lerner has his own sense of Debussy’s pedal effects, without which his music is impossible. Listen to the Serenade for the Doll and The Smow is Dancing from Children’s Corner. Bell sounds, woodwinds, pipes, harp, and liquid sonorities abound, all to produce a sustained, if concentrated, ecstasy – much in the manner of Liszt but wedded to Schumann’s naivete. A natural extension and complement to Lerner’s readings would be those of the late George Copeland; and we must hope for some enterprising label to reissue those classic MGM inscriptions.

New to the Debussy canon is Intermede (1880) in B Minor, discovered in 2001 among the papers of Maurice Dumesnil, Debussy’s friend. A Russian-sounding piece, it reflects Debussy’s stay with Mme. von Meck, the sponsor of Tchaikovsky. The plethora of pentatonic scales which Debussy idiosyncratically harmonizes prove natural to Lerner, a resident of Thailand, a land with its own conception of time-values. Himself a pupil of the gamelan sound of Bali, Debussy, even in his youthful pieces, asks for a long, indulgent pedal over which the performer must supply simultaneous colors or a huge crescendo followed by a subito. 

The Preludes Book II (1912-1913) represent Debussy at the height of his powers. Triads, tritones, arpeggios, plainchant, dissonances, trills, soft ostinatos, Moorish sonorities and pentatonic scales and modal harmonies are called upon for their singular or combined effects, ranging from Indian temples to the Paris and London music-halls.  The care Lerner lavishes on Feuilles mortes and Les fees sont d’esquises danseuses (after Arthur Rackham’s illustration) point up his respect for Debussy’s often three-part harmony, the sensitivity of the composer’s demand for wisps or diminished bits of color, as in Canope. Allusions to Gottschalk, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Ravel, Stravinsky, and to the composer himself abound, all and each concentrated to a bar or measure of recognition. 

Huge sonority for La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, whose unearthly progression make operatic gestures which collapse into dead space. Lerner’s Ondine is less Darryl Hanna than a nightmare out of Tim Burton, a page from Ravel’s Scarbo made angry flesh. Even Pickwick Esq. plays pomposo, only a few dalliances away from Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. Les tierces alternees is a toccata utilizing the interval of a third throughout, often producing a water-sound reminiscent of Liszt, of the Danse (Tarantelle styrienne), and of the last prelude, Fireworks, a piece which builds up to an immense intensity three times. The liner annotation, besides the virtuosity of the playing, testifies to the erudition that illumines every note of Lerner’s execution.

–Gary Lemco

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