Gabriel Fauré: Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63
Claude Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau (from Images I)
Maurice Ravel: Jeux d’eau
Maurice Ravel: Ondine (from Gaspard de la nuit)
Alicia Abensour: Piano
As hard to believe as it was, last Saturday was the eighth and last day of Aix-en-Provence’s tremendously popular Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, just as I was getting really used to my unfailingly uplifting, daily happy half-hour of terrific free performances in the nearby Chapelle des Oblats’ spacious cloister after having patiently waited for about another half an hour in line among my fellow music-loving Aixois and a few visitors. My only regret is not having been able to do more, but then again, such is life.
For that grand finale, the concert I picked did not feature only one composer, as it had been the case for all the previous ones, but not fewer than four, three of whom being among the very best in French classical music history. Even better, all the works apparently had in common the theme of water, which was particularly appropriate since Aix-en-Provence is famous for being a “city of art and of water” due to its vibrant cultural scene and its countless historic fountains. Good choice, Miss Abensour!
An alumnus of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence and a current professor at the École Internationale de Genève, young and already very busy pianist Alicia Abensour kicked off the concert with the one unknown quantity on the list, E. Harris’ Seascapes, Op. 4. And I am glad to report that from the very first note, we vicariously were there, right on the sea shores in front of the immense, ever-changing sea, which is in fact a welcome feeling on a late summer afternoon in Provence.
Gabriel Fauré’s resolutely modern Nocturne No. 6 was next and, although the connection to water was not quite as clear, we were soon all happily indulging in its graceful melodies, its original tranquil pace, and its multi-faceted emotional weight, which was definitely palpable, but remained uncompromisingly dignified, even at its most turbulent (The man was French, after all) courtesy of Abensour’s subtly expressive take on it.
Quite logically, after Fauré came Debussy, another French composer who knew how to sound good even as he was unceremoniously breaking new musical ground. The short but determinedly bold Reflets dans l’eau, from his Book of Images I, being the perfect case in point, with its unusual yet fascinating textures and harmonies delicately evoking the magical colors of light reflecting on water.
And then, after Debussy and his fleeting reflections came Ravel and his wide assortment of water sounds inspired by fountains, cascades, rivers and such in his Jeux d’eau, which was not just a little inspired by Franz Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este and dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré (Hello again!). Abensour’s highly competent fingers let the water freely flow, fall, splash, sparkle, and created so many other incredible sounds that they could only have been concocted in Ravel’s brilliant mind.
The last piece of the concert, and of my personal festival programming, was Ondine, from Ravel’s three-poem suite Gaspard de la nuit. Based on the poem by the same name, about a water nymph who sings to entice the listener into visiting her kingdom deep at the bottom of a lake, it is less cacophonic that his Jeux d’eaux, focusing instead on the melodies’ lyricism and the harmonies’ shimmers, which Abensour’s virtuosic performance beautifully conveyed. So much water, so little time.