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About this Piece

Possibly with tongue firmly in cheek (or maybe not), Debussy wrote to his publisher about L’isle joyeuse (The Isle of Joy): “But God, how difficult it is to perform... That piece seems to assemble all the ways to attack a piano since it unites force and grace...”—as if it assembled the ways without help from the composer. The piece, composed in 1904, is a vivid, virtuosic, large-scale bacchanale that evokes Debussy’s orchestral style of Fêtes and La mer. And if, broadly speaking, it seems to take some of its impetus from Liszt’s tone poems and from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, it is still quintessential Debussy.

Thought to have been inspired by a Watteau painting (The Embarcation for Cythera), L’isle joyeuse bursts with a sensuality, rhythmic excitement, and buoyant propulsiveness that illuminates its homage to the spirit of Venus and her court. Beginning with a flute-type cadenza combining chromatics and whole tones, the music is hypnotic as it swirls, cascades, and erupts in some of the most extroverted orchestral pianism to have come from the pen of Debussy. —Orrin Howard