The 2012 Newport Music Festival is producing 20 well-conceived Debussyads, of which this concert on Monday afternoon, July 17th was the seventh. The high-ceilinged, multi-purpose room in the Newport Art Museum’s main building was the venue, and it filled early with an appreciative crowd. Two grands nestled in the traditional two-piano positions, the closer one lidless, and a trio of music stands and empty chairs looked promising as the audience awaited the start of “Debussy and the Art of Transcription.” Festival veterans Bernadine Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald (spouses, from Ontario) walked in together and sailed into Debussy’s four-hand transcription dated 1880 of three dance movements from Tchaikovsky’s then-brand-new Swan Lake, op. 20 (1875-76). Fluffy though the pieces are to many an ear of our day, they are excellent entertainment, and the duo’s polished, vigorous performances placed them in the top echelon of salon music.
The same duo then expanded to the second instrument and gave us the one Debussy work of the concert in its original state, his fairly late En blanc et noir (1915), his primary contribution to the two-piano repertoire. Two of the three movements – 1. Avec emportement; 2. Lent, sombre – are homages to friends just fallen in the horrific Grande Guerre Mondiale, while the concluding Scherzando is dedicated “à mon ami Igor Strawinsky.” The tonal language of this work, which Debussy wrote one year into a war that had already savaged France irreparably, is bleaker and significantly more acerb than any he had used before. Innate lyrical elements and fleeting glimpses of altered, fleeing beauty abound among the intervallic shell holes and sometimes chill harmonies. The concert grand and the smaller 225cm piano, both by Yamaha, could not summon up the delicacy of texture that resides in most bars of the work, even in the extrovert outer movements, nor did their individual and combined clangor present this stark, ethereal music in a pleasing and engaging way. Blaha and Fitz-Gerald play firmly and with gusto, so we heard a fair amount of flinty piano sound.
The first half closed with a glorious old potboiler that gets little exposure today, Wagner’s overture to Der fliegende Holländer, WWV.63 (1840-41; rev. 1860) — our loss. In Debussy’s two-piano setting, from 1890, the two modern grands conjured forth the balances of today’s orchestras to fine effect. In 1999, I heard this same transcription in the Netherlands, a gloriously orchestral interpretation on two big 19th-c. Paris grands that genuinely evoked the 1880s Wagner orchestras Debussy knew personally. There were shiver-me-timbers moments galore, and the pianists were not the only ones sweating. I suspect that the gleaming transparency of well-played grand-modèle Erards was as responsible for those memorable sounds as Debussy’s hand. This is a superb arrangement. The duo and the Yamahas did well by it, though more transparent piano sound would have allowed Wagner’s breathtaking harmonies (contemporary with Berlioz, let us not forget) to be appreciated more fully.
The second half was devoted to the world premiere of Italian composer-pianist Alberto Pavoni’s chamber transcription of Trois esquisses symphoniques (1903-05), the closest Debussy came to composing a symphony. We know the work as La Mer. Flutist Göran Marcusson, brilliant violist David Cerutti, and cellist Sergey Antonov (among the Festival’s most visible and popular figures) joined Lyon pianist Alain Jacquon to play all three sections. The equal sharing of orchestral textures among the four players is among the transcription’s strong points, and each performer made the most of this. The cello-viola hand-offs and their occasional gentle see-sawing of arpeggiated, quickly shifting passages were delightful. A surfeit of block chords portraying massed orchestral soundscapes, on the other hand, was markedly less successful, and I ultimately found them tiring. Too, this concert grand had no way of producing the frequent pp and ppp dynamics in all of the movements, which burdened the flute and the two strings with the necessity of louder overall levels so as not to be overpowered. Alain Jacquon played with exceptional elegance, and his deft interaction with each of the other instruments and their combinations was masterful. I would gladly hear these players again in the same transcription, though perhaps with a more colorful piano, capable of a suitably wide dynamic range.
The multi-purpose room in the Newport Art Museum accepts big ensemble sound gracefully. Since the acoustic strongly favors lower and middle registers, though, the strings and the woodwind had next to no “air” around their sounds, nor could they adequately project the very fine shadings the performers achieved when heard close-up. I ascribe some of my perception of harshness from the two pianos to the same room-determined sound propagation. The leaden heat outside and curatorial concerns naturally required the vigorous air conditioning, which all appreciated. With this in mind, I moved twice to find a seat where I could hear more music than “whoosh.”