Pour le piano – yes indeed, for the piano! Debussy’s title not only describes his composition, but this entire recital program as well. This is music written by pianists for pianists. Music that explores the instrument’s chameleon power to mimic the intimacy of the singing human voice, and, moments later, to roar with the grandeur of a symphony orchestra. Music that tests the piano’s seemingly infinite range of expression, from a limpid frieze-like stasis, to throbbing demonic ecstasy. No instrument places in the hands of a single musician this vastness of possibility.
And remarkably, given the stylistic variety we will encounter, most of the music performed this evening was written in just the two decades leading up to the First World War; a period of tumultuous experimental fecundity, as 19th-century Romanticism had to find its way in the modern 20th-century world.
When musicologists and reference books are obliged to draw a line between the old and the new, between the musical legacy of the Romantic era and the onset of modern music, they draw it with the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). It is not a surprise that, as a harbinger of innovation, Debussy was routinely deprecated by his contemporaries. In 1911, the powerful New York critic James Huneker wrote: “It is impossible to conceive a finer vehicle of expression than that invented by Debussy through the simple yet original process of abolishing rhythm, melody, and tonality from music and thus leaving nothing but atmosphere.”
An opinion not shared by succeeding generations. To the venerated pianist Claudio Arrau, Debussy was “one of the great geniuses. His music is absolutely unique. It’s like the music of another planet.”
Pour le piano was published in 1901, though the second of its three sections dates, in an earlier incarnation, back to 1894. The titles of these sections are redolent of a musical era two centuries before: prelude, sarabande, and toccata are terms we associate with Bach and the Baroque dance suite, not the dawn of the 20th century. They provide Debussy with a source of inspiration rather than imitation, and the opening Prélude is appropriately energetic and virtuosic, but sounds nothing like its historical antecedents. The athletic glissandos of the Prélude lead to the calm center of the Sarabande. Debussy’s descriptive indication: Avec une élégance grave et lente – with a grave and slow elegance. The closing Toccata is a brilliant exclamation, uncompromising in its technical demands.