The Newport Music Festival produces some two-and-a-half score well organized, well attended solo and ensemble concerts in the Newport mansions and in a few other notable places. The obvious success of such a ferocious density of mostly classical performances stems in part from excellent advance and on-site organization, a cheerful swarm of engaged volunteers, and the smooth continuity afforded by the return presences of many artists. As a seat mate quipped during this particular concert’s half-time, “they all simply keep coming back.”
Each July festival has a titled main theme. This year’s focus is on Debussy’s œuvre and the sweeping reach of his influence within and beyond his musical milieu. There will be 20 Debussyads, of which this concert, on July 17th, was the sixth.
For his solo recital in the grand ballroom of The Elms, pianist Alain Jacquon, head of the respected Conservatoire de Lyons, offered dry-eyed, revealingly detailed presentations of two defining statements of musical avant-gardisme in pre-1930 Paris. A century after the appearance of the second book of Debussy’s Préludes (1912-13), these dozen revolutionary pieces are almost universally familiar, they’re undeniably beloved, and our penetration of what they’re about is alternately aided and sometimes surprisingly hampered by the numberless previous interpretations each of us has taken in our lives. M. Jacquon also played the first grouping of Olivier Messiaen’s works that the composer felt spoke credibly on behalf of his developing compositional æsthetic and language. His Huit Préludes (1928-29) are as titanic a statement as either of the Debussy Livres, and they merit frequent hearing. Jacquon set about putting both collections across with freshness, verve, and a welcome disregard for their “hallowed” status in today’s piano repertoire.
Debussy, ever the turbulent soul, seldom managed to combine domestic and financial stability, yet islands of calm dotted the seascape of his richly productive last years. Out of his final inner wellspring of new perspectives on tonality surged veritable freshets of stand-alone movements that still astound. Alain Jacquon played the late 12 Préludes as new music, not as scores since become the standard stuff of recitals. With great skill and no doubt with the professional’s pragmatism, he sometimes overcame the monochrome hardness of the Yamaha Mark IV 227cm Disklavier (on which more vers la fin) to share his wonderfully architectural, forthright vision of these works. Time and again, I found my inner ear constrained to supply frail subtleties of the score that clearly were being played, yet whose evanescent transparencies were stopped cold by the colorless brashness of the 7-1/2-foot grand. I am an admirer of the modern school of piano building at its admirable best, but this particular concert model lacked a long shopping list of the tonal and dynamic characteristics that are required for subtle playing. Ppp passages were not physically playable, nor were the indispensable juxtapositions of fff and ppp, as in the famous close of No. 11, Les tièrces alternées, in which the minimally forceful penultimate chord yields to the pianissimo final chord at each end of the keyboard. The end was entirely inaudible, though it was visibly played. I am sorry that memorable performances by a musician of Jacquon’s caliber were at so audible a disadvantage.
Though the same technical limitations necessarily applied for the Messiaen, these extraordinary and utterly gripping Préludes, products of their author’s 20th and 21st years, came off well. At this time, Messiaen was still comfortably and productively in the tonal sway of Debussy, just a dozen years after the death of the Musicien de France. It is glib to refer to these eight pieces as two-thirds of Debussy’s unwritten Livre III, of course, but the thought did recur every few bars in each work. Messiaen, an organist of legendary ability, infused stretches of his piano music with patently organistic traits. The imposing timbral structure of the signal Parisian organs of the time abounded in septièmes and other strongly voiced mutations whose unmistakable, brilliant light dapples or even wholly light paints extended chordal passages. The Huit Préludes — their largely tonal nature still nestling within a final cast of the French late Romantic veil, quintessentially at home at the far bounds of that enduring style — cleave to their era’s modernism, frequently evincing benign glints of atonality. They are still engagingly enfolded in a post-Debussyan sensibilty that both honors the great French path-breaker and builds an exquisite bridge to new sound worlds, an always appealing furtherance of what Debussy so effectively wrought.
Had the piano’s una corda affected color and not just volume, this would have been an even more brightly, vibrantly hued experience. As it was, the piano’s lack of color and timbral gradation all too frequently pushed full-throated places in the eight scores into brutal enharmonicity, rather than into the frisson-inducing collision of discords, ethereally augmented vertical tone painting, and shimmers of metallic light pastel. Jacquon presented these eight youthful masterpieces with starkly terraced dynamic levels. The earthbound piano put these across adequately, if not with poetry. A brilliant bit of programming, this pairing with the Debussy.
Given the technical constraints mentioned above, this is not the place to go into one particular aspect of Messiaen’s writing, the inseparability of his senses of color and tonal language. Instead, I will simply quote the composer’s own color associations for two of the eight. If your French is on the rusty side, you will still find a look at these to be informative. As with the writing in his scores, his word use is innovative and almost revolutionarily recombinant: 2. Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste Gris, mauve, bleu de Prusse, pour le début et la fin ; le milieu est diamanté, argenté. and 6. Cloches d’angoisses et larmes d’adieu Les cloches mélangent des quantités de modes ; le houm (résultante grave), et tous les harmoniques supérieurs des cloches, se résolvent en vibrations lumineuses ; l’adieu est pourpre, orangé, violet. It’s all there to hear. Truly.
Alain Jacquon’s rumbustious, fire-and-thunder-emitting encore was the 1943 Tocatta in A by Paris Conservatoire pedagogue and brilliant pianist Pierre Sancan (1916-2008). The piece played to what strengths the piano had, though the sheer volume of fff in the short work parted my thin hair and left my ears ringing. His appreciative audience roared with approval as Jacquon ended.
A related afternote: For a few decades now, Yamaha’s MIDI-based Disklavier technology has been effecting extraordinary changes in how, where, and when the traditional piano is heard. In its earliest iteration, the technology brought playback of pre-recorded (in the playing sense, rather than in the audio sense) performances via disk drive. Recordability and editability arrived, then increasing degrees of dynamic and voicing subtlety. The sophisticated data stream captures increasing polyphonic complexities, each with dynamic precision. Today’s versions of the Disklavier system, as incorporated into the piano used in this recital, have posited new frontiers for players, listeners, and — this is quite striking — the student-teacher environment. Just as Jacquon’s concert instrument was sending a live MIDI stream bearing the nuances and time constants of his Newport performances to the Yamaha HQ in California, so can a teacher and a student, or indeed a number of students, now play and communicate from afar, each able to hear the acoustic results of the other’s playing and examples. They can even play four-hands duos on two geographically separated Disklavier-equipped pianos. That’s a powerful step in musical evolution.