DEBUSSY: Estampes; Images, Books I-II; Children’s Corner Suite; La plus que lente; L’Isle joyeuse – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA68139, 69:25 (1/5/18) [Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****
A potent and sonically resonant all-Debussy album attests to the spectacular technique of Stephen Hough.
Having listened to the exotic, even voluptuous, sounds of the gamelan and gong (or metallophone) at the 1899 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy carried within his musical imagination of vast array of potential colors, each of which finds release in his brilliant 1903 suite Estampes (Engravings). Stephen Hough proves admirably capable of projecting the vibrant, pentatonic energy of the opening Pagodes, set on the keyboard’s black keys. Although Debussy marks the score sans nuance, the effect of ‘distancing’ does not diminish the spectacular wave-like motion—via 2-bar and 4-bar measures—of the piece, as though Balinese dancers had their sensuous reflection in a still pond. For the second of the engravings, Debussy takes us to Spain, as cross-fertilized by Moorish harmony. The lilted habanera rings with Spanish folk idioms across the range of the keyboard. The languor of the music increases with the strumming of sensuous guitars, moving to a hazy, even lazy, sense of seductive quietude. Hough explodes with a rush of 16th notes to invoke Jardins sur la pluie, a colorful toccata that reverberates with trends from the French clavecin school of Rameau and Couperin. The harmonies embrace a moment from Tristan as well as two French folk songs, Nous n’irons plus aux bois and Dodo, l’enfant do, which suggest that ingenuous innocence of spirit we associate with Wordsworth and Schumann’s Op. 15, all of which ends with a burst of E Major.
The set of Images, Book I (1905) owes a debt to Charles Baudelaire, who had written that “the whole visible universe is nothing but a storehouse of images and signs… a kind of pasture for the imagination to digest and to transform.” The opening Reflects dans l’eau in D-flat hands together by a three-note motif which evolves through shifting harmonies to capture the mercurial aspects of water. The eight-bar phrase endures interruption of chromatic chords. Hommage a Rameau clearly nods to the Baroque master by intoning a sarabande in modern, declamatory dress that relies on aspects of plainchant. The suite comes full circle with Mouvement, a kind of etude in triplets, showing off Hough’s pearly play and bouncing sense of rhythmic flux. “Fantastical but precise lightness” provides the rubric for correct performance, though Hough adds a touch of percussive vehemence of his own character.
Debussy lightens the dynamic texture of Images, Book II (1907) even further, reducing the dynamic to piano and below, except for two forte chords in the middle of Cloche a travers les feuilles. The whole-tone scale soon transforms into a diatonic scale, the bells signaling much in later Ravel. A second slow piece, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, provides a mysterious hymn, based on incomplete and non-cadential chords, almost a “ruined temple.” Hough must layer his sound by degrees, so the “etude,” as it were, becomes a study in stillness. In Poissons d’or, Debussy invests active, fluent life into two lacquer goldfish that hung on the wall of his study. Debusy wished this piece as an object “lesson” for pianist Ricardo Vines, who played music too mechanically for the composer’s taste. Under Hough’s fingers, the music swoops and swirls in sudden, jerky convulsions that flash in ripples of mottled water-colors.
Debussy and his second wife, Emma Bardac, had a daughter whom they nicknamed Chouchou (b. 1905), and the 1908 suite entitled Children’s Corner is dedicated to her. The opening Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum inverts pedagogical wisdom by opening in strict, academic format and then entering into childhood reverie. Jimbo’s lullaby puts the toy elephant to bed with lulling major seconds taken from Mussorgsky. Carillon-like tones mark the Serenade for the Doll, which smacks of a dance-hall tune. French composer Jules Massenet supplies the melody for The Snow is Dancing, from the 1899 opera Cendrillon. A kind of mesmerizing etude in 16ths, the ‘exercise’ also casts a nostalgic character that soon shimmers in an uncanny glow. The Little Shepherd projects a sense of isolation not too far from the prelude Footsteps in the Snow. Hough invests a delicate touch of anguish into its laconic figures. Golliwog’s Cakewalk transposes much of Gottschalk and Joplin into the French cabaret, even mocking such a somber work as Tristan with its sly impudence.
A Monsieur Leoni led the little orchestral ensemble for the Carlton Hotel in Paris, and Debussy conceived his salon waltz, the “slower-than-slow,” for him in 1910. The harmonic motion of this piece exploits the “new harmonic chemistry” available to the composer, though the passing dissonances become absorbed into a most beguiling tapestry. In 1904, Debussy eloped with second wife Emma Bardac, and the L’Isle Joyeuse (in a minor), whatever its debts to Jersey or to the Watteau painting L’embarquement pour Cythere pays homage to the event. The potent opening trill and cadenza employ the whole-tone scale device used in Pelleas et Melisande. A waltz ensues that incorporates dotted rhythm, resonant triplets, and huge gestures that likely pay respect to Franz Liszt. The best performance in my “live” experience came from Grant Johannesen, but Hough makes the shimmering work revel in its own, buoyant ecstasies with an equally convincing vigor.