The Flaxen-Haired Girl, passing a gallstone

Tonight, I went to hear a pianist perform an all-Debussy recital:  all 24 Preludes; the first book before the intermission, second book after.

Concerts that feature only one composer are always a bit tricky.  There is the danger of too much of the same.  All Bach, all Chopin, all Prokofiev can get really old really fast …  Fortunately, in the case of the Debussy Preludes – though the pieces are all “preludes” -, there is enough variety to keep things interesting.

One issue the pianist must grapple with is how to present the twelve pieces of each of the two Preludes books in a row.  How much of a break / pause should there be between the individual Preludes?  Should they all be completely individual, disconnected, unconnected, unrelated, with equal pauses between them? Or should some of them be grouped together with shorter pauses or perhaps no pause in between?

Tonight’s pianist had some interesting ideas.  He decided to group the Preludes into sub-groups.  Most strikingly in the first half (first book) was the connection between the 7th and the 8th Prelude.  There was no break, no pause, in fact not even a pedal change between the last note of Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest and the first note of La fille aux cheveux de lin.  My personal taste would be to separate the Preludes and treat them as individual pieces but I can see that someone else might think differently – matter of taste, nothing dictated by how Debussy presented the Preludes in the books.

What Debussy does dictate, however, are lots and lots of details in the score, especially where it concerns the tempo.  Numerous instances of retenu, serrez, and back to au Mouvt.  Which makes me think that he was very particular about how and where we are supposed to give, slow down, and then pick up the previous tempo.  Which tonight’s pianist seemed to gleefully ignore.

Instead, tonight’s pianist (yes, I am avoiding his name) indulged in continuous rubato. Or at least what he considered to be rubato. There are not that many places where Debussy actually uses the word rubato.  There may by seventeen retenu, serrez and au Mouvt indications in a piece but only two instances of rubato (yes, I counted) .

There is rubato which according to dictionary is “freely slowing down and speeding up the tempo without changing the basic pulse”.  And then there is distorting the tempo to the point where all pulse is lost, and rhythm becomes indecipherable, incomprehensible. Tonight, there were too many instances where for example continuous eighth notes within one measure suddenly screeched to a quarter note halt.  And then just as suddenly reverted back to eighth notes.  With nothing in the score to indicate that this should be happening.

Artistic license?  I think not.

At the beginning of this post I said that I had gone to hear a pianist.  Unlike listening to a recording, with a live performance one also gets to see, watch the performer.

Tonight’s performance was a spectacle.  Technically, the pianist knew his stuff.  So, why the contortions? The raised shoulders, the crouching upper body (reminded me of one of my 5 yr-old students who is fascinated by the innards of my grand piano and crouches to watch the strings as he is playing) – the facial grimaces?  My favorite piano professor once said, “Don’t interpret, for Heaven’s sake! Just play!!”  (when describing a particular student who thought that “interpreting” meant twisting and contorting your body in order to wring meaning out of every note).

Which brings me to the title of this post (the credit for which goes to Mark).  La fille aux cheveux de lin / Girl with the Flaxen Hair: is about a girl.  A girl.  Not grown-up yet, not a complicated person, perhaps not even deep or profound.  Just a girl (with flaxen hair – impressionists liked to be specific).  The tempo indication is “tres calme et doucement expressif” (very calm, and sweetly expressive).  Yet, tonight’s performance was as tortured and tense – in addition to being so completely all over the place rhythmically, with erratic and random dynamic changes (usually sudden) – as one would expect from someone who plays a piece depicting – I don’t know what: a woman in labor? an old man remembering better times in between bouts of sudden stomach pain?

Artistic license? Not if one doesn’t recognize the piece.

The Sunken Cathedral is supposed to start calmly (“profondement calme”), perhaps with an eerie sense that what is about to happen (in the story) is a spectacular, monumental once-every-hundred-years event.  I imagine a calm but not necessarily peaceful atmosphere if that makes sense.  Tonight, we were treated to unceasing tension, imagined pain, trying-too-hard-to-be-meaningful-ness.  The Cathedral’s climax was convincing, but everything else was too much, and yet not enough.

In a way, I wonder how this pianist who seems to have a very definite idea of how Debussy should sound and should be played – I wonder how he interprets other composers. Then again, I’m not sure I care.