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Finnish Pianist Fresh in Enigmatic French Rep


Paavali Jumppanen (file photo)
Paavali Jumppanen (file photo)

Paavali Jumppanen rewarded an attentive audience to a first-rate rendering of the two books of Debussy Préludes early Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum. Each of the 24 Préludes was given specific gravity and atmosphere, and in combination, they formed a small Debussy universe. Some were harsh, icy, threatening, others warm, serene, bathed in moonlight or ocean, or skipping atop sunny hills (with an ocean view and balmy breeze). Debussy’s enigmatic musical universe made transparent.

All the titles and translations of the 24 Préludes are listed below, noting that Debussy put titles only at the ends of the works. In these 20th century character pieces, inspiration or allusion is to location, experience, storyline, myth, theatre, literature, imagery (occasionally art), and other music and cultures (Spanish), or, of a state of mind or mood only suggested by a title (say involving dead leaves or footsteps in the snow).

Préludes, Book 1 (1909–1910), L 117

Danseuses de Delphes (Delphic Dancers)
Voiles (Veils / Sails)
Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain)
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (The Sound and fragrances swirl through the evening air)
Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri)
Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow)
Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Saw)
La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair)
La sérénade interrompue (The Interrupted Serenade)
La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral)
La danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance)

Préludes, Book 2 (1912–1913), L 123

Brouillards (Mist / Fog)
Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves)
La puerta del Vino (The Wine Gate)
Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are Exquisite Dancers)
Bruyères (Heather)
Général Lavine – eccentric
La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace of Moonlit Audiences)
Ondine (Mermaid)
Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
Les tierces alternées (Alternating Thirds)
Feux d’artifice (Fireworks)

With the first Prélude, Danseuses de Delphes (said to have been inspired by a sculpture of three dancing Greek priestesses in the Louvre), Jumppanen established a mood in moments, with a gentle but stately rhythmic pulse to keep huge chords afloat, superb voicing, micro-crescendos, and just the right amount of elastic rubato to imbue the inner chromatic, dotted-rhythmic line (which is then developed throughout) with even more character. Beautiful, balanced piano playing.

Ample mystery and more exquisite voicing followed with Voiles. The mental veils that Debussy expressed, exploiting the whole tone scale, are still bizarre and “trippy” more than 100 years later.

Jumppanen’s mastery of the Préludes was clear right away: of technical demands, of Debussy’s tonal language, and of a desire to conceive of and shape each Prélude to make it his own, to make each distinctive. No small task. But this music also makes big demands of the listener. Beyond the pianist’s control? Maybe. But the pianist helped in big ways, without any dumbing-down of the music. Listening aids came in the form of precision, variety in articulation, warmth, beautiful sound, humor, a broad emotional and color palette, and being live in the moment, hearing and controlling each sound.

With the shape of the hall, every audience member was in close proximity to artist and piano (lid off) and every note was audible. Jumppanen didn’t shy away from explosive or massive sounds or exquisite variations on pianissimo. All these nuances of color and dynamics  became possible because of the really even voicing and regulating of the Gardner’s fine German Steinway.

Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Saw) was loud, ugly, pointed, jagged (all with discipline), and (mostly) relentless. Good stuff. What followed was wistful and lovely, and Schenkerian in approach: La fille aux cheveux de lin. The melodic line sang freely, while the underpinning architecture was also projected. Earlier, Des pas sur la neige was near-still, ice-clear voicing moving forward to the musical equivalent of frozen despair. The quietly pleading and repetitive opening motif, with a triplet figure, was played curiously fast, I thought, but consistently so. I checked the score: Jumppanen played it as written, as a triplet eighth note, while almost all recordings have it stretched to a triplet quarter note.

In fact, Jumppanen followed the scores almost religiously, with one (possible) exception. In his own notes for the program, he references “two independent tempos with subtle differences” for La cathédrale engloutie, the longest of the Préludes. At bar 22, where the music reaches a high point—the engulfed Cathedrale has just surfaced from the depths?—the score has no indication of tempo change. But, at least according to Victor Lederer, Debussy intended there to be a doubling of tempo at this juncture, and Lederer points to existing piano rolls of Debussy playing his own work as evidence. It seems to work either way. Odd, though, that Debussy, so scrupulous with score markings, would not have made an indication in the original Durand score. Jumppanen doubled (or near-doubled, a stretched doubling?) the tempo. Regardless, it was a powerful performance, beautiful and balanced chord playing and musical projection, and a stately rhythmic pulsing throughout.

After, you could have heard a pin drop. And, big playing aside, there were far more such moments of silence. And many moments of playing seemingly removed from the hall. Debussy often marks the score with variations on “…lointain” (from a distance), and in these instances Jumppanen excelled at “throwing” his piano voice outside the piano zone.

Jumppanen’s introduction to Book II gave insight into his interpretations:

The publication of the Book II of Préludes evoked reactions of disappointment. Comparisons between the inspired optimism of the Book I and the pessimistic mood of many of the new Préludes left some fans feeling betrayed. A certain realism presides of the world of Book II: ancient myths have been replaced with scenes from colonialism, a point of view which can be sensed from postcards and newspapers of the era. Some lightheartedness still remains, though: Varieté and the British, which held special attractions for Debussy, are given benevolent depictions. Curiously instead of the typical two, Debussy set the music on three staves in the score of Book II; perhaps he was thinking of eventually arranging these Préludes for an orchestral ensemble.

Brouillards (Mist / Fog), opening Book II, has some parallels with Violes (Viels / Sails). Jumppanen, whether depicting mist, fog, or a mood, made the music dark and sinister sounding and, appropriately, without a clear ending. Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) followed suit.

The Spanish Préludes in each of the two books sounded, well, Spanishy. Jumppanen’s notes revealed that the interruptions, and angry interjections, in La sérénade interrompue are because there are two young guitar players attempting to serenade the same woman, interrupting each other. Other notes find different excuses for only one player being interrupted.

The title of La puerta del Vino (The Wine Gate) sounds innocent enough, but Jumppanen’s program notes again gave some insight to the darker side of this Prélude: “An atmosphere of rites and hidden violence hovers above [it].” The pianist contrasted a thunky, aggressive rhythmic foundation with an expressive, counter-rhythmic, snake-charmer-like melodic line, and some playfulness in the interior of the work. He made the piece sound much like the big, bruiser brother to Soiré dans Grenade from Estampes. You know, the kind of brother who gets in fights, who fights with you a lot growing up, but is always there to protect you. Not a bad guy, really.

Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are Exquisite Dancers) conjured a different set of brothers. Jumppanen’s performance had joy, stop/start extremes, and a haunting inner melody. But if these were dancing fairies, they were downright Gronkowskian. Some filigree, sure, but more strength, sinew, structure, and drive.

Bruyères (Heather) was of a different order. Jumppanen allowed sentiment to enter in, even a little well-earned self-indulgence. A huge contrast to surrounding pieces, and a fitting parallel to La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) from Book I. A performance of and about real joy, made that much more apparent in context and contrast.

Briefly on much of the rest…

Général Lavine – eccentric was appropriately pokey, like having a baby elephant walking on the keys.

La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace of Moonlit Audiences) showed, through Jumppanen’s playing, Debussy’s revolutionary ability to extract color and sound from the piano in ways no one before him could do.

Ondine (Mermaid) was also a display of piano coloring, and instant shifting of character, within a tight rhythmic structure.

Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C., despite all the massive chords, was really sweet and tender, with dynamics used as a structural element, and a real point of arrival (despite all those interruptions).

The final Prélude, Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) is a brilliant work, and something of a tribute to Liszt, as was Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Saw) in Book I. Some say that Debussy references a theme from Liszt’s Méphisto Waltz early on with the strident, sharp attack of a tritone “melody.” That’s quite a stretch. This music and this performance brought Stravinksy to mind more often. Though that may have be backwards. The brittleness of sound, followed by huge washes (and swatches) of sound, along with cutting and pasting of phrases, may have been more an inspiration to Stravinsky, than the reverse, given the timeline. Jumppanen let himself go almost out of control in the climax, after the near exhaustive 4-minute micro (and 90-minute macro summary) of what sounds can be produced from the piano. As the music and fireworks faded, a fragment of “La Marsallaise” seemed to come from another place, marked “de très loin,” juxtaposed against an equally faint and haunting final iteration of an early motif. Then all faded. Until applause and a generous ovation.


I was fortunate to hear Jumppanen play part of the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas for piano and violin in 2013, with his violinist collaborator Corey Cerovsek. Playing from memory, the two were in absolute sync, always on the same (virtual) page. The two have recorded the set, with rave reviews, as well as the three Brahms Sonatas. Jumppanen has also recorded a number of the solo Beethoven Piano Sonatas, which I’m about to explore…

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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