Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque
Debussy: Images, Book II
Schumann: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17
Debussy: La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune from Preludes, Book II
Debussy: Images, Book I
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
A couple of weeks ago, I was oh so unfairly grounded by the flu and had to miss the recital by Janice Jensen, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Dover Quartet at Carnegie Hall, which the lucky recipient of my ticket later unsurprisingly described as “exquisite”. So last Tuesday evening, I was more than ready to reconnect with public live performances, almost fully recovered and my cough totally under control, but nevertheless armed with a generous supply of water and Ricolas, just in case. After all, even if music famously heals all wounds (and, I would guess by extension, ailments), it is still preferable not to be a nuisance in its presence.
In typical understated English fashion, piano wizard Stephen Hough routinely packs an incredible range of powerful nuances without making the slightest bombastic statement or other undue fuss. Whether he was playing Chopin on his own, Grieg’s Cello Sonata with Steven Isserlis, or Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, just to name a few, the performances of his I have attended have never failed to be spontaneously engaging and deeply informed.
So my friend Vy An and I were particularly eager to hear him forage deep into Debussy’s œuvre for the centennial of the composer’s death, with classics from Schumann and Beethoven thrown in for good measure, back at Carnegie Hall.
Inspired by the French poem “Clair de lune” by Paul Verlaine and an Italian peasant dance from Bergamo, Debussy’s beloved “Clair de lune” is the quintessential impressionistic jewel, even if the composer hated the label. And sure enough, on Tuesday night the innately gorgeous ballad unassumingly fleeted its revolutionary harmonies, ethereally filling the large Stern Auditorium and resolutely setting a crisp and unsentimental tone for the remaining of the evening.
After this perfect introduction, a seamless transition brought us straight to the second book of his Images. It started with “Cloches à travers les feuilles”, an elegant evocation of ringing bells through tree leaves, followed by “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut,” which unaffectedly described the universal moon gently setting on the exotic temple that was, before ending with the graceful notes and splashy fun of the golden fish in “Poissons d’or”.
There are few works that have the sweeping emotional force of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, one of the most heart-felt musical declarations of love ever composed, and its indomitable nature was on full display on Tuesday night as Hough expertly handled the composition’s many stunning and stunningly treacherous twists and turns. First unabashedly rhapsodic with still a barely there underlying coolness, the music eventually reached the much awaited majestic march, before slowing down and coming to its meditative, but no less impactful, conclusion.
The second half of the program kicked off with the return of Debussy and his ubiquitous moon in “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune”, a spacious terrace from where audiences were leisurely enjoying an organically luminous moonlight, which kind of brought us back to the Debussyan territory of the beginning of the concert.
Then we moved quietly and smoothly into the first book of his Images. The popular “Reflets dans l’eau” exquisitely depicted endlessly shimmering and constantly morphing reflections in the water; the sarabande of “Hommage à Rameau” was a fitting homage to the French Baroque tradition; and, last but not least, “Mouvement” kept Hough uncommonly busy with relentlessly shifting sounds that left everyone hypnotized, exhilarated and exhausted.
During the intermission, the piano tuner had spent a lot of time working on the splendid Steinway, and it had crossed my mind that beside the expected adjustments, he was also reinforcing the piano’s strings in anticipation of Beethoven’s tempestuous Appassionata Sonata. I cannot really vouch for the state of preparedness of the piano, but the pianist had no trouble whatsoever making the radical change in genre, fiercely working his way through the challenging piece with plenty of technical dexterity and dramatic flair all the way to the no-holds-barred grand finale.
It had been a glorious evening of piano playing, but obviously not quite enough for pianist and audience as the indefatigable former treated the delighted latter to two understated yet memorable encores, going back to Schumann with Posthumous Variation V (Moderato) from Symphonic Etudes, and finally wrapping the concert with a magical Nocturne in E-Flat Major by Chopin. Just because.