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Yuan Sheng plays Debussy and Ravel on 1877 Érard


Yuan Sheng in recital (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

A special fundraising recital yesterday at The Frederick Collection featured an all-French program played on what seems to have become the Collection’s most popular instrument among recitalists on its series: the 1877 Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert, which has 90 keys, the two additional ones in the bass. It has been featured three times this past season alone, as well as in earlier seasons.  It was chosen by pianist Yuan Sheng of the faculty of the Central Conservatory in Beijing, who earned his BM and MM at the Manhattan School of Music on scholarship in the 1990s.  He had presented the same program the previous Wednesday in NYC in a Masters Series Concert as part of the Mannes College International Keyboard Institute.  Readers can find information about the instrument in an earlier review with links to photos of it here.

The first half of the program was devoted to Debussy, the second half to Ravel, and the works chosen were heavily, exclusively in the case of Ravel, from the composers’ Baroque-form compositions, dating from 1890 for the earliest Debussy piece, the Suite bergamasque, L. 75, that was begun then but reworked and expanded for publication in 1905, the major change being the addition of the third movement Impressionistic Clair de lune, to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin from 1917, exactly 40 years after the making of the instrument.  The Suite bergamasque was followed by Estampes, L. 100, from 1903, his first Impressionist work, followed in turn by L’isle joyeuse from 1904, L. 106, which Debussy scholar Roy Howat has posited was intended to be the closing movement of a second Suite bergamasque, following Masques and D’un cahier d’esquisses, but demands of publishers caused those pieces to be issued separately.  It’s something of a cross between Baroque-inspired and Impressionistic.  Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was preceded by his Sonatine, also published in 1905, which has a curious history in that its first movement was the composer’s submission for a 1904 contest sponsored by a magazine, the Weekly Critical Review (in spite of its title, a French language publication), for the 75-bar first movement of a sonatina, but the magazine canceled the competition without awarding a prize because Ravel’s 77-bar work was the sole submission.  Ravel decided to complete a traditional three-movement work with it, placing a “Mouvement de menuet” in its center enclosed by its Modéré and an Animé, in which one of the melodies of the first movement returns to make it somewhat cyclical fast-slow-fast if not truly sonata-form piece.  There would have been a perfectly balanced continuity had Sheng programmed Ravel’s first Impressionist work, his 1901 Jeux d’eau, which was in fact the very first Impressionist piece, although Liszt had paved the way for it with his Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este and his Au bord d’une source, for the opening of the second half, thus including Ravel’s predecessor to Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie that closes his Estampes, and providing the second panel of a water diptych.

Debussy certainly played Érards at the Conservatoire, where they were the official instrument, in recitals in salons and private homes, and in the Salle Érard. In his own home though, he had a series of Pleyel uprights over the years, and his other preferred make was Bechstein, of which he had at least one upright, and perhaps also a series thereof. A Blüthner was the sole instrument that he actually purchased — a 1904 small (6’ 3”) grand model acquired in 1905.  All of the works on the program were likely composed at the keyboard of the Bechstein, which had a cast iron frame with overstrung bass notes rather than this instrument’s wooden frame and parallel stringing, although they were surely performed on similar instruments when they were played at the time of their publication.  Ravel, on the other hand, never owned anything but Érards, perhaps only one, a small grand (about 7’), so all his music was composed at their keyboards and with their sound in mind, and he, too, played them at the Conservatoire and in salons and private homes.  It struck me that his music fit this instrument’s soundscape somewhat better than Debussy’s, perhaps for this reason, and I would have been especially keen to have heard his Jeux d’eau on it.  Sheng played the entire recital masterfully from memory. Except for his frequent dramatic flourishes at endings, his playing style was restrained in general, as is appropriate for French music.  He exploited the instrument’s amazing power a bit too much in the Debussy pieces in particular to the detriment of some of their more delicate nuances, which the instrument’s ability to produce equally amazing quieter sounds, even pianississimos, might have enhanced.  The bright and live acoustic of the hall as well as its moderate size – it’s a square, high-ceilinged sanctuary, not a large concert hall for which the instrument was specifically designed, and it was not full of listeners – perhaps also contributed to this effect.  Sheng  did, though, nicely bring out the wave-like rhythms in the Prélude of the Suite bergamasque and in Pagodes where he also handled the evocation of the gamelan well.  In La soirée dans Grenade he effectively evoked the strumming of a guitar.

A new feature of this benefit recital was that donors making a contribution of $100 or more received a complimentary CD recording of the previous evening’s run-through of the program as a memento.

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.

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