After I had gained a little background in what we call “classical” music (which is to say, Western art music of whatever era and style, whether it is truly classical or not), the customary juxtaposition of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel as “impressionist” composers made less and less sense. Debussy, great iconoclast that he was, was indeed influenced by the impressionist painters and was in addition an extraordinarily adventurous composer who developed what has become a fundamentally important mode in contemporary musical expression, the so-called “tone block,” which has influenced composers as diverse as Penderecki and Pärt. Ravel is pre-eminently a structuralist, focusing on form (which may explain to some extent his delight in and fascination with jazz, which is, after all, a highly formal idiom) to build his shimmering tapestries of sound.
Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque is a work that, as much as any other, typifies the breadth of Debussy’s approach, while it also marks a shift in his means. I’ll grant that this is perhaps not the best work to support my thesis — Pelleas et Mélisande> or Nuages would be much better for that — but the indicators are here. The third movement, “Claire de lune,” is undoubtedly the best known and is also the one that marks the composer’s move into a truly “impressionist” mode. While the other sections are fairly standard, and ultimately derive their construction from the traditional forms that originated in the eighteenth century, “Claire de lune” is a different species entirely: understated, evocative, elliptical, it paints a picture — or perhaps more accurately “hints at a picture” — rather than providing a road map.
The works by Ravel, while equally evocative, seem somehow tighter, less apt to wander into unforeseen byways: they are much more planned, although not in the least dull because of it. In the Sonatine, the “little sonata,” we see a twentieth-century — and very French — response to the gems produced by the classical masters and their romantic heirs: it’s a crisp, concise, and really quite formally complete hommage.
The Valses nobles et sentimentales, by contrast, in spite of their dedication to Schubert and their ostensible model, are about as un-Viennese as it’s possible to get: rich, pungent, filled with surprises, notable for their strong, graceful structures and sparkling details. (And the careful listener will find echoes of the great La Valse in the section titled “Moins vif,” reputedly Ravel’s favorite.)
Alborada del gracioso (“Dawn Song of the Buffoon”), part of the suite Miroirs, borrows heavily from the music of Spain to create a vividly pictorial programmatic work — not something one usually finds in a composition for solo piano. Ravel takes advantage of the percussive qualities of the instrument, as well as its great potential for tonal color, to produce a tightly constructed but immensely evocative piece.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Debussy and Ravel belong in distinct and mutually exclusive compartments. They knew and, by all reports, admired each other’s works, and there’s strong evidence that there was cross-fertilization in that appreciation. However, when all is said and done, even though the surface effects are similar, there is a fundamental difference in how those effects come to be.
As I’m working my way through the six-volume CD commemoration of pianist Leon Fleisher’s eightieth birthday, I am becoming more and more impressed with his abilities as a performer and interpreter. Fleisher was another of those prodigies who pop up with appalling regularity in the history of music: he gave his first recital at age eight and at age 16 made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. His career, sadly, was put on an enforced hiatus when he lost the use of two fingers of his right hand at age thirty-seven. He did eventually regain the use of his hand, after about twenty years, and resumed performing as well as teaching. I’m impressed not so much by his technical facility — in an age littered with Wunderkinder and the perfectionism possible in the recording studio, that’s pretty much a given — but by his sympathetic understanding of the music he performed. From his seamless blending with the Juilliard in Brahm’s Piano Quintet to his faultless negotiation of the angularities of twentieth-century American music, to this enchanting rendering of Ravel and Debussy, I’m astonished at his ease and his honesty: his approach has been not to enforce a “style” on the material, but to find what is in the music and show it to us, which to me is the hallmark of the very best performer.
(Sony BMG Musical Entertainment, 2008 [orig. released 1959])