Classical Reissue Reviews

DEBUSSY plays DEBUSSY; RAVEL plays RAVEL = DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner; Wind on the Plain; Minstrels; La soiree dans Grenade; Le Plus que Lente; D’un cahier d’esquisses; RAVEL: Sonatine; Noble and Sentimental Waltzes – Claude Debussy, p./ Maurice Ravel, p. – Melodiya

Connoisseurs of “authenticity” cannot be without this restoration of piano rolls by Debussy and Ravel, each performing his own music with diligence, taste, and artful pianism.

Published on May 30, 2013

DEBUSSY plays DEBUSSY; RAVEL plays RAVEL = DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner; Wind on the Plain; Minstrels; La soiree dans Grenade; Le Plus que Lente; D’un cahier d’esquisses; RAVEL: Sonatine; Noble and Sentimental Waltzes – Claude Debussy, p./ Maurice Ravel, p. – Melodiya

DEBUSSY plays DEBUSSY; RAVEL plays RAVEL = DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner; Wind on the Plain; Minstrels; La soiree dans Grenade; Le Plus que Lente; D’un cahier d’esquisses; RAVEL: Sonatine; Noble and Sentimental Waltzes – Claude Debussy, piano/ Maurice Ravel, piano – Melodiya MEL CD 10 02063, 51:03 [Distr. by Allegro] (1/14/13}****:

In 1913, both Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) appeared at the M. Welte & Soehne piano roll company to inscribe several of their own works. Despite their having been labeled “impressionists,” each composer placed a high premier on pellucid clarity in their musical lines, and they strove to communicate impeccable articulation in their own realizations of their respective scores. As far as “authenticity” is concerned, we could hardly do better; and this new reproduction from the sophisticated piano rolls tends to be cleaner and infinitely less crackle-laden than acoustic shellacs of the same period.

Debussy takes the “Doctor Gradus as Parnassum” opening of the 1908 Children’s Corner at a blistering pace, a real test exercise for advanced students; but more, the “gentleness of continuous pressure,” to quote Marguerite Long, makes itself felt as a supple color to the dynamic range. Curiously, Debussy had noted that the piece should not be played too fast, beginning moderato and ending spiritoso. “A full and intense sonority, yet without any hardness of attack,” to cite Long once more on the subject of Debussy’s special touch. The ponderousness in “Jimbo’s Lullaby” conveys the ungainly affection that the child’s toy elephant embodies for Debussy’s daughter Chou-Chou, the nuance in half-tint pentatonics, much in the spirit of Chopin. Serenade of the Doll employs portato in abundance, a source of rhythmic excitement, the animation derived by a series of strummed dialogue patterns. Debussy keeps a firm line, which I find somewhat severe. “The Snow is Dancing” might indicate a consolation prize for Debussy’s daughter’s inability to go outside and play. The movement presents a sort of toccata, in short, staccato sixteenth notes that make the piece sound faster than Gradus. Debussy makes the last page ring with high register flakes, his half pedal’s capturing the soft tissue that can evaporate in a heartbeat.

Melancholy and modal, The Little Shepherd seems a lonely figure, occasionally nimbly dancing despite his plaint. Delicate and sweetly expressive, Debussy’s realization follows his written instructions exactly.  Florence K. Upton’s “golliwog” would hardly pass as “politically correct” today, but the dancing doll cakewalks in a manner that parodies the black slaves’ pompous masters. The articulation of the doll’s high kicks and struts is supposed to be “very distinct and very dry,” and Debussy achieves this right up to the point indicating “slower with great emotion” that advances Wagner’s Tristan chord in obvious parody.  The jazz elements in the piece, in the right hand, find a classical composure in the left, with Debussy’s steady martial beat. At the conclusion, it seems our clumsy doll takes a spill; and I would venture this music motivates much of the “Sambo Doll” episode in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Debussy’s “The Wind on the Plain” achieves a series of chime effects, although the title derives from Verlaine’s Forgotten Songs. The sudden sforzati and rush of ostinati Debussy articulates with a clean transition, since he means to have the wind sound “sweep past you telling you a story of the world.” The 1910 Minstrels offers another cakewalk rhythm that Debussy softens with canny pedal effects. The more vulgar music all effects exude a kind of slovenly air to the piece, which ends in a kind of march rhythm in counterpoint. The dry wit of the piece certainly comes through. From his cycle Estampes, Debussy performs his own Spanish dance, La soiree dans Grenade, in Andalusian colors. This may be the most sensuous of the recordings Debussy made, and it presents those triple piano to forte effects of which Debussy the pianist was capable without a seam. The pedal literally breathes the phrases while the top voice sings liquidly. A distant guitar or small band plays, and their song fades into the Iberian night.  A wonderfully blurred effect marks the “Slower than Slow” Waltz (1910), the ironic comment on both the salon style of the French dancehall and the “decadent” influence of Stravinsky. The dreamy From a Sketchbook (1903) comes close to late Brahms and Schoenberg, the harmonies and individual colors seeming to rise up independently, the lines awash in whole tones and open chords. That Debussy meant the piece as a preparation for La Mer is not outside the realm of possibility. The sensuality of the composer’s keyboard style cannot be denied.

Ravel plays his classical “competition piece” Sonatine (1905) with a shimmering yet studied brightness. The first movement conforms more to the Aeolian mode than to F-sharp Minor. Its use of fourths and fifths finds its way, in transformation, to the two later movements, a device common to Beethoven and Liszt. The second movement, Menuet, is in D-flat Major. The accents lie on the upbeat, but its delicate fabric and Ravel’s own rubato make it sound waltz-like. The wry grace of the left hand part, played sostenuto, enlarges the salon effect. Ravel does not include the last movement (Anime) in his recording.

The cycle of 1911 Vales nobles et sentimentales wants to celebrate Schubert, but their acerbic and sophisticated rhythmic character has little of that Vienna master. Ravel himself emphasizes their delicate but athletic vitality, their emotional equivalence to a coy dream. Ravel’s use of detached articulation produces a singularly sec effect, but it has a decided bite to it. Ravel once claimed that he wished to “crystallize the harmony and sharpen the profile” of the Viennese original waltz impulse, and he has accomplished this with a complexity that is not “complicated.”

[There is a machine-like tinge to the Welte  rolls, but they are so superior to all other piano roll recordings, that they impress listeners today in cleaned-up versions, whether computerized {such as the great Rachmaninoff CDs on Telarc} or straight analog recordings. Of course we don’t know how much of the final result comes from the actual pianists and how much from the artisans who translated the wavy ink lines inscribed on the rolls to the holes punched in the final paper rolls...Ed.]

—Gary Lemco




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