Handelsman debut album of Debussy Impressionism…
DEBUSSY: Images = Images, Book I; Estampes; Images, Book II; Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle Joyeuse – Mathilde Handelsman, piano – Sheva (January 2019) 61:55 [Digital distr. by Naxos] ****:
French-born pianist Mathilde Handelsman makes her debut recording with the complete works of Claude Debussy, composed 1903-1907, as performed on a period Steinway (1875) and recorded at the Chapel of the Château-Thierry, 2019. Ms. Handelsman’s musical pedigree includes studies with Menahem Pressler, John O’Conor, Laurent Cabasso, and Peter Serkin. As noted by Handelsman, her chosen instrument has a warm and deep sound relatively uncommon among contemporary Steinway pianos, and Debussy’s music proves the beneficiary of Handelsman’s touch and articulation. The year 1903 marked a departure for Debussy away from Baroque and Romantic dance and narrative forms, since the publication of Estampes embraces a coloristic, exotic, impressionist phase that plays with light, in the manner of Debussy’s revered J.W.N. Turner. The aesthetic of poet Stéphane Mallarmé has ingrained itself into Debussy’s style, a tendency to blur lines, to invoke pentatonic or bitonal scales and chords, and non-linear melodic lines to suggest “the stuff dreams are made on.” The keyboard itself has undergone a transformation even beyond Chopin’s desire for legato and non-percussive dynamics, since Debussy’s percussion itself assumes color and shape that responds to visual images and passing discords in the breath of an occasion.
Handelsman opens with the 1905 first set of Images, of which “Reflets dans l’eau,” marked andantino molto, that sets a water piece in modal harmonies and shifting contours. Whatever “reflects” on the water becomes dynamic and protean, even passionately ardent, at least momentarily. In transparent, shifting periods, the melodic kernels coalesce, dissolve, and evaporate, leaving us with a watery veil of memory. The second piece, “Hommage à Rameau,” emerges from Handelsman as a passionate, studied sarabande, moving from austere, chaste harmonies into rich octaves and parallel, augmented chords. Handelsman’s parlando style elicits grace and dignity to the occasion of Debussy’s tribute to a true, French, Baroque master. “Mouvement” may well indicate another water-piece, carelessly spewing over rocks and cavorting in its own freedom. The choppy pentatones might suggest an oriental water excursion, and Handelsman’s bass tones here seem a mite pesante. Still, the joie de vivre is undeniable, and piano sound is lush.
Debussy’s attendance at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 inspired him with sounds of the Far East, such as the gamelan orchestra of Java. The 1903 triptych Estampes opens with “Pagodes,” a suggestion, via the black notes of the keyboard, of the pentatonic and gong-like sounds that the metallophone might elicit. Without a leading tone, a pentatonic scale has no sense of an ending, and so the Pagodas reside in a static space, where the two and four-bar phrases breath a rarified atmosphere. Debussy asks Handelsman to play presque sans nuance, “almost without nuance,” so as to detach the scene from human personality. There may be reflective pools of water near the Pagodas, and the light seems to scurry in this haunted, Asian space. Manuel de Falla often claimed that Debussy, in pieces like his La Soirée dans Grenade, taught the Spanish composers much of their own music. A habanera sets the telling rhythm of this evocative and sensuous piece, and the piano will supply guitar effects and Moorish scales here in Grenada. Handelsman may appear more percussive here than some other interpreters, say, Alicia de Larrocha or Ivan Moravec. But Handelsman maintains a unity of effect, and the passing horses’ hooves and tolling bells leave much of the laziness and .e of spirit intact. The last piece, “Jardins sous la pluie,” might depict a child’s awe at the window as he or she witnesses an energetic rainstorm. A torrent of 16th notes and passing, illumined raindrops create a virtual toccata of this postage stamp, incorporating two French folksongs to encapsule the “childlike wonder” of the occasion.
The second book of Images (1907) opens with “Cloches à travers les feuilles,” the sound of bells through the leaves, meant to convey Debussy’s impression of the steeple bells in the village of Rahon, the hometown of his friend, sinologist Louis Laloy. Set in B Major, the piece begins with whole tones, again reminiscent of his Java allusions. The music proceeds on three staves, an indication of Debussy’s penchant for graduated complexity and intertwining musical lines. Handelsman executes the middle part with a lush sonority that contrasts with the bare sonorities with which the piece begins. “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” evokes a static sense of timelessness, the passing dissonance and glistening sonorities redolent of the East and the exotic. A procession seems to pass through the ancient, ruined temple, and their chant invokes old incantations to forgotten deities, Poe’s “forgotten lore.” The dreamy effect from Handelsman lingers long after the last chords drift away. “Poissons d’or” reminds us that Debussy owned Japanese, lacquer panels with goldfish or fighting fish captured in their silvery, quick movements. Handelsman deals with the brilliant, toccata writing in staccatos, sudden block chords and tremolos with deftness and acuity. The final tone carries the impression of a tender gong.
Handelsman groups three scores from 1904, beginning with Masques , set in an ambiguous A Minor and rife with dark undercurrents indicative of the emotional crisis Debussy had initiated in having abandoned his wife to live with mistriss Emma Bardac. Even beyond the merely autobiographical aspect, the work addresses Schumann’s old obsession with the commedia dell’arte, and its own, internal conflict of surface mirth and deeper tragedy. Rhythmically, the piece moves between duple and triple time, nervously playful. The ostinato energy soon becomes manic; and despite some moments of reprieve, more frigid in affect late in the music. The upper registers in Handelsman’s keyboard shimmer in tones at once translucent and threatening.
Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse (The Island of Joy) is surely his happiest, his most overtly exuberant and thrilling work. Allegedly inspired by a Rococo painting of Jean-Antoine Watteau entitled L’Embarquement pour Cythère (The Embarkation for Cythera), it describes the voluptuous love revels of a party of aristocrats on the island sacred to Venus, goddess of love.
The first sound we hear is a delicate vibration in the air, a trill, rippling through sonic space in patterns of figuration that outline the whole-tone scale, a 6-note scale pattern that runs through the piece as a whole. Soon a sprightly tune in a dotted rhythm presents itself, a melody more than a little similar to the jaunty tune of The Little Shepherd (also in A major) from the composer’s Children’s Corner suite. This tune is in the Lydian mode (a major scale with a sharpened fourth degree), which gives it a rustic flavor richly suggestive of the goat-footed glee of Pan the piper in an enchanted wood. A more familiar scale pattern, a clear diatonic A major, shines through in the lyrical second melody of the piece, an undulating evocation of the sea and the waves of voluptuous emotion sweeping over the lovers on their island paradise.
Both themes are tossed about in a rush of increasing gaiety and gradually building exhilaration, slipping easily between tonal centres in a bright tonal world brimming with melodic major thirds, augmented chords and whole tone scales. After a bustling march builds up to a sonorous fanfare of triumph, the lyrical second theme reaches its apotheosis in an explosion of orchestral thunder that issues into a luminous vibration of shimmering tremolos, to end the piece with a plunge from the top to the very bottom of the keyboard.