For her third appearance at the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series, NYC-based Hsia-Jung Chang chose to play an all-Debussy program, the first half devoted to two of his earlier suites for piano and the second half to some of his earlier melodies, thus taking the opportunity to introduce the Sarasota, Florida-based, New Jersey-native soprano Deborah Berioli to the Collection, its series, and this region’s audiences. Although I have found no evidence that Debussy ever had an Érard in any of his residences, Chang felt that this instrument best offered the possibility of creating his desired soundscape.
The Ashburnham, MA-based Frederick Collection was confronted with the impossibility of moving to the concert venue its 1907 Blüthner that is nearly identical to Debussy’s own 1904 model that he purchased in 1905 in Eastbourne, England, and had shipped to his last residence in Paris, an 18-room rented house with garden near the Bois de Boulogne. The Blüthner is virtually the only piano that he ever owned; it is still extant and in playing condition in a museum in the Limousin (Limoges area), where it landed through the son of his step-daughter Hélène (“Dolly,” dedicatee of Gabriel Fauré’s Suite of that name) de Tinan. In his house, Debussy had several pianos, all loaners from their makers, including Pleyels and a Bechstein; all were uprights, but none were Érards, although he knew their sonorities well because they were the official instrument of the Conservatoire de Paris where he studied from 1872 to 1884. The Blüthner was small, not a concert grand like this Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert, details and images of which you can find in an earlier review with links to a performance on it; the difference in size makes its resonances similar to the Blüthner even though it lacks the Blüthner’s patented Aliquot system of sympathetically sounding strings and has parallel rather than the cross- or over-strung bass strings that stretch rightward over the middle register ones, as have all Steinways, Bechsteins, and Blüthners. All these also have cast-iron frames, while the Érard’s is wooden with metal tension bars above the strings, which changes the sonority.
Why is all of the above important to know and understand? Because Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) were the first composers ever to attempt not only to suggest but actually to capture colors and effects of light on surfaces and coax them out of the strings of a percussive instrument, and they were quite particular about the sounds the instrument produced. And among the works on the afternoon’s program were some of Debussy’s first efforts in this vein. His first major published piano work (1902) was the suite Pour le piano, constructed like the suites of the French Baroque clavecinistes, a succession of movements based on dance rhythms – think J.S. Bach’s French Suites if you are unfamiliar with the French Baroque composers. With Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, the opening work, he took a ‘baby step’ forward: its third movement, a sarabande rhythm, originally titled “Promenade sentimentale” when the suite was first written in 1888-’91, was re-named when he reworked the set for publication in 1905 to “Clair de lune,” familiar to all as the evocation of moonlight playing on the landscape. Its fourth movement, “Passepied,” was originally titled: “Pavane” – think Maurice Ravel’s famous Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899, pub. 1902) for the rhythm. The mixture of Baroque dance rhythms and image painting is evident in the program’s second work, Images Book I (also 1905), as well: its first movement, “Reflets dans l’eau” depicts the play of light on water, like Ravel’s Jeux d’eau (1901), while its second: “Hommage à Rameau” is another sarabande, and its concluding third is titled simply “Mouvement.” There was much to-do in the first years of the 20th century as to which of the two was first and who copied whom – they knew each other but did not by any means ‘hang out’ together. It is established fact that Ravel was ahead by a few years and that neither was truly copying the other, but rather there was a cross-fertilization of concepts and techniques, and their paths diverged in opposite directions as their careers advanced.
Chang’s playing style is the epitome of what all witnesses described as that of Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel: she obtained all the sound with her wrists, hands and fingers, her upper arms mostly held vertical and close to her sides. Like those pianist-composers, she believes that “it is all about the music,” not about the musician, and that all the razzle-dazzle should be in the sounds produced by the instrument, not in the showy movements of the musician’s limbs. She played from memory with an intense concentration on the precise production of the exact sound that the composer sought, with an equally precise and judicious pedaling to obtain the nuances and the sustaining rings, and the Érard’s strikingly sonorous resonance allowed all its colors to sparkle and glow and made the music come brilliantly alive. This is true artistic virtuosity; no emotive ebullience required. Chang has recorded a CD of Debussy’s music that includes these works; you can find my review of it and learn how to purchase it here.
The instrument’s enormous power was also eminently suited to Berioli’s voice. She sang from memory (while Chang used scores), and opened with Gabriel Fauré’s setting of Paul Verlaine’s “Clair de lune” (1887), which served as the title of the program as a whole, to set the mood and tone. Although Debussy also set this text twice, in about 1882 for his then-mistress Marie-Blanche Vasnier and again in 1892 in Fêtes galantes, Book I/3, neither of his were programmed. Berioli then offered Debussy’s Nuit d’étoiles (1880), Beau soir (1880), Mandoline ( 1882), Le Jet d’eau (1887-’89), Romance (1884), and De fleurs (1892-’93), the latter to a text by the composer. The selection of titles was based on links with the images evoked by the solo piano works on the first half of the program. (The order of the texts in the printed program and the accompanying texts-and-translations handout did not correspond to the performing order, creating some ‘rustling of the breezes’ in the papers due to the audience’s confusion.) Berioli’s voice has an extraordinary range and she is especially gifted in vocal, gestural, and facial expression, varying everything expertly to match the texts whose meaning she clearly understood thoroughly, and which consequently matched perfectly the composer’s rendering in the accompaniment, superbly executed by Chang. Berioli’s diction was good if not of native-speaker quality.
The audience’s immediate standing ovation was rewarded by a performance of Pauline Viardot’s La fête (1848), a setting of a text by Louis Pomey to music from three of Chopin’s Mazurkas, with that of Op. 6/4 as the base. Viardot (1851-1910) knew Chopin (1810-1849), who not only approved of her creations but accompanied her more than once when she sang them. The work depicts a village peasant dance and is appropriately ebullient, a quite different mood for a finale that allowed Berioli to display her expressive talents even more fully and to demonstrate that Chang is as masterful with Chopin as with Debussy.
Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College in Northampton.