Sunday, 4 February 2018

A shimmeringly good start to the Debussy centenary

A Christmas present to make you feel grown up
In this centenary of the death of the great French composer Debussy, one thing is assured: there will be no shortage of recordings of his works.

If Debussy has never quite been my favourite composer, he’s been hovering not far away from the top of my personal pantheon since around 1980. I had embarked on A level music studies at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School and one of the first works that we were introduced to was Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

It was a Deutsche Grammophon recording, with Herbert von Karajan wielding the baton and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra providing the gorgeously lush sound that stunned this then teenage listener.

It was the start of love affairs with all four component parts of that musical equation.

My mother, whose own classical music appreciation largely went little further than Handel’s Messiah (played every year as we put the Christmas decorations up) and Gilbert and Sullivan, was delighted in my interest and happy to buy me albums at Christmas and birthday.

The mantra was established instantly: DG, Von K, the Berlin. Most arrived on cassette, since I had one of those handheld ones that I later took to college. Such tech has gone the way of all flesh, but my vinyl recordings still survive – including one of those joint Debussy-Ravel programmes that seem to have been the light-classical norm for years.

In a general sense, I always loved DG covers – and still do: so much cleaner and brighter and more modern than those that, for instance, had a reproduction of a painting of an eighteenth-century street because it was a recording of something or other by Mozart. And while of course I would not wish to suggest that I am swayed by covers alone, I do still think that DG produces the classiest covers around, even when they’re predominantly artist portraits. 

Before the centenary got underway, DG had released Seong-Jin Cho’s new collection of piano works, Debussy, comprising Images I and II, Children’s Corner and Suite bergamesque.

In January, this was followed by Daniel Barenboim’s heavily-touted Claude Debussy, with a programme of Estampes, Clair de lune (from Suite bergamesque), Le plus que lente, Elégie and Préludes, Book 1.

Since the composer is standardly described as an Impressionist, it’s easy to think of his work in terms of paintings rather than the literature that was his inspiration. It was a poem by Mallarmé that gave birth to Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, for instance.

But it can be difficult not to see pictures in the mind’s eye when listening to his work. To be honest, I dont think that counts very high on a list of problems.

On a different note, I have made the mistake, for some time, of treating music as background – something to play on headphones when working so as to aid concentration – and forgotten the value of setting aside time to really listen.

This weekend, I decided to actually sit down and pay attention to these two new discs.

Now Cho is new to me, whereas Barenboim is an established household god who I have had the very great joy and privilege of seeing play live.

The programmes are different – except for Clair de lune. Both are wonderfully meditative: a proper listen is seriously de-stressing stuff.

I have no preference over that one shared piece. But there is something in Cho’s playing that is so subtle, yet utterly devastating.

The thing I kept thinking of when listening was, ironically, not in his programme – Le Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral), which is is the tenth piece in Préludes, Book 1. Yet it is what I thought of, time and again, while listening to Cho.

Barenboim is wonderful, with the contrasts that you would expect, but there is an ethereal, shimmering quality to Cho’s interpretation that takes the breath away – thats if you’ve not already found tears streaming down your cheeks.

I was constantly half-thinking of light on rippling water – and yes, of submerged buildings.

In this year of Debussy, these two have already set the bar very high. Get/stream both, if you can. But if you have to choose, go for Cho and then invest the time away from anything else, simply letting yourself be drawn in to the utterly beautiful music and this quite extraordinary performance.

And one can only hope that this is indicative of the quality that we’ll be treated to over the coming months.

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