Gasparian plays Debussy – Preludes, Estampes, Rondes de Printemps – Naïve

by | May 26, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

DEBUSSY: Preludes, Book I; Estampes; Rondes de printemps – Jean-Paul Gasparian, piano – Naïve V 7958 (68:05) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This all-Debussy program dates from Paris, 12-15 September 2022, and it attempts to realize pianist Jean-Paul Gasparian’s conception of Debussy’s sonorous “immateriality,” which liberates the imagination from the brute aspects of the percussive instrument. Respecting Gasparian’s aims, I decided to audition first his playing of his father, Gerard Gasparian’s, 2009 transcription of the third of the orchestral Images, the “Rondes de printemps,” composed exactly a century prior. The sense of lightness and transparency of texture, busy with joie de vivre and richly colored polyphony, makes an excellent pianistic challenge, a toccata for the virtuoso palette. The music’s visual analogy lies in the painting of Maurice Denis, included in the accompanying booklet, of Soir florentine (1910), a depiction of nude female bathers who perform a round dance in an outdoor temple garlanded by branches of surrounding trees. Despite a relatively hard patina, the resonance from Gasparian’s instrument manages to evoke a playful wash of timbres in constant motion, which emanates a palpable eroticism in the shifting, dynamic filigree.

The Book I of Preludes (1910) revolutionized keyboard sensibility, radically diverging from the paths set for the genre by Bach and Chopin. Poetic, pictorial, or abstract, the Preludes defy convention, since even their designated titles follow as postscripts to the music proper, a mere suggestion of an aesthetic or psychological reference. The dominant key for this series of 12 miniatures is B-flat, with digressions into whole-tone harmonies and diverse modal scales. The opening Danseuses de Delphes, inspired by a Greek bas-relief housed in the Louvre, emerges like a solemn sarabande, evocative of those same dancers of the temple in Rondes, moving here Lent et grave. The context of Voiles seems to be marine, proceeding in whole tones and pentatones, the evocation of sails rather than veils, physical or psychological. The keyboard kaleidoscope enjoys a rich sonority, step-wise, tolling as well as swirling and gushing in glissandos, only to recede mysteriously into a simple interval of a third. Le vent dans la plaine, reverberant in sound while exploiting the limits of a semitone, enjoys the velocity and suppleness of perpetual motion. Baudelaire provides the source for Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, where olfactory impulses wish to play a part in the occasion. A sprightly tarantella marks Les collines d’Anacapri, a recollection of Debussy’s stay in Rome, 1885-1887 at the Villa Medici. The expressive melody superimposed on the Italian rhythm has its own, piquant color. Des pas sur la neige, among the most forward-looking of the set, a post-Liszt, staggered evocation of spiritual bleakness and mordant sadness. Gasparian proffers a rendition of studied pathos, the final chord more Mussorgsky than Liszt.

Portrait Claude Debussy, 1908

Claude Debussy, 1908
by Félix Nadar

The volatile legacy in Liszt infiltrates Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, possibly inspired by a piece by poet Paul Claudel, erupts with fiery, tumultuous energy, its runs urged by the interval of the second. Gasparian injects a ferocious energy into the vision, perhaps unsubtle for some, but eminently compelling, as Debussy had found Liszt, whom he had heard in Rome. Juxtaposed against the West Wind, the succeeding La fille aux cheveux de lin, after a poem by Leconte de Lisle, disarms by its sheer simplicity of means, an archaic parlando that must forever incur the image of actress Jennifer Jones in the film Portrait of Jenny. Debussy utilizes a Spanish, jota rhythm for his La sérénade interrompue, marked quasi guitarra, with Gasparian’s aggressive staccatos in imitation of the stringed pizzicatos of the guitarist, whose song suffers constant interruption.

Gasparian’s tendency to attack Debussy’s notes contrasts greatly with the approaches of Moravec and Michelangeli, who bestow a mysterious haze over Debussy’s musical canvases. The massive and often exotic La cathédrale engloutie opens in parallel Gs and Ds, fifths, to invoke the Breton legend of Ys, the home of Tristan’s beloved Isolde. The cathedral rises in a sea of B Major, gaining volume and authority in Gasparain’s epic realization, the tolling of the church bells resonant of the Javanese gamelan and shimmering with the influence the Impressionism of modal harmonies. Besides an active pedal, Gasparian has doubtless thrown his body weight into the chords, chimes, and organ sonorities that ring long after the fermata. La danse de Puck again achieves a sudden contrast in tone and texture, capricious and light, as the Celtic prankster cavorts in marvelously resonant glissandos and bells. The figure became known to Debussy via Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially his admonition, “What fools these mortals be!”  The conclusion of the set, the parodic Minstrels, displays anachronistically and without political correctness, the black-face musical clowns of American burlesques. Though marked Modéré, Gasparian urges the piece with a bit more insistence and staying power.

Gasparian rather relishes his incursions into Debussy’s 1903 Estampes, his 3-movement suite of Impressionistic color plates. The opening B Major Pagodes reverberates with gamelan sonorities and pentatonic scales, emphatic in the notes G#, C#, and D#. Debussy instructs the pianist to resist the heavy application of rubato, asking the piece to be played “almost without nuance.” The temptation to nuance proves irresistible, and even Gasparian’s haunted bass line and high arpeggios glisten with color effects and pulse maintain by careful pedal. Moorish Spain provides the impetus for La  soirée dans Granade, moving from an electric F# Minor to a resolution in F# Major in its definition of a Spanish sensibility that Debussy knew from a mere few hours in that country. Guitar inflections and a haunted sense of evening serenade invest the piece with an ardent eroticism, and we might envision Tyrone Power’s seduction by Rita Hayworth in Blood and Sand. Finally, Jardins sous la pluie, a plastically kinetic suggestion of a rainstorm in Normandy, in which the raindrops quite bounce off the pavement. Debussy incorporates two playful, French folksongs into the mix, now infused with whole tones scales, major and minor, in E. Gasparian’s athletic playing illuminates the piece with a colossal scale of virtuosity, much in accord with his playing, which may belie his desire for “immateriality.”

—Gary Lemco 

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