Wigmore Mondays – François-Frédéric Guy plays Debussy, Tristan Murail & Brahms

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

Debussy Préludes, Book 2 (1912-13): Brouillards (1:27-4:25 on the broadcast link below); La puerta del vino (4:31-7:41); Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (7:46-10:37); La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (10:42-15:00; Feux d’artifice (15:03-19:07)
Debussy Images, Set 1 (1901-05): Reflets dans l’eau (20:47-25:37)
Tristan Murail Cailloux dans l’eau (2018, UK premiere) (25:40-32:30)
Brahms 4 Piano Pieces, Op.119 (1893) (34:35-48:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If last year saw a surfeit of Debussy’s music in the composer’s centenary year, it was for a good reason. The composer is rightly revered as one of the leading lights of early 20th century music, and brought with him new approaches to melody and harmony, not to mention sound worlds and textures unlike anything that had been heard before.

His writing for the piano is indispensable and of a consistently high and original quality, whether taking inspiration from older forms or creating new ones. In his Préludes for the piano he builds on an approach perfected by Chopin, who used each key to create 24 such works. Debussy, however, made 24 character pieces, painting portraits either of specific or deliberately vague imagery.

In this lunchtime recital François-Frédéric Guy fully immersed himself in this revolutionary writing, showing a clear affinity with five of the Préludes from the later Book 2. The swirling mists of Brouillards (Mists) (from 1:27 on the broadcast link) are vividly portrayed, with a notable attention to detail on the weighting of the notes. The swagger of the Habanera inhabits La puerta del vino (The wine door) (4:31), with its exotic harmonies matched to a free rhythmic approach.

The parallel chords of Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) (7:46) are also beautifully weighted, while La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) (10:42) grows from its introduction with a masterful crescendo. Finally Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), 15:03) is captivating, and during it you can practically see sparklers being waved around, thanks to the twinkling figurations in Guy’s right hand.

Reflets dans l’eau, taken from Debussy’s Images Set 1, is another watery wonder (from 20:47), played here with exquisite control from both fingers and feet – the use of the sustain pedal being of great importance in Debussy’s music. The rippling sounds act as the inspiration for Tristan Murail’s tribute to the composer, Cailloux dans l’eau (25:40)

His response begins at a more measured tempo than Debussy’s, savouring the colours for longer and effectively making his water slower moving. Soon, however, the ripplies become much more pronounced and twist upwards to the higher pitches on the piano (c30:00), with frothy trills that gradually subside towards silence. Guy played this with absolute control, fully immersed in Murail’s writing.

To finish, the final works for piano by Brahms. These four pieces were written as the composer reached his 60s, and mark the end of a late creative flowering including a number of chamber works for clarinet and intimate pieces for the piano. Three of Op.119 are classed as Intermezzos, a title essentially giving the composer free rein.

No.1 feels the most free of all, with a soaring right hand line beautifully floated by Guy in this performance. A real song without words, it carries deep emotional impact here. Guy moves straight on to the second piece (38:20), a flowing piece with greater urgency and a sunnier theme in the centre.

Then at 42:27, the short third piece, with repeated notes using the ‘classic’ Brahms triplet rhythms. Guy missed a couple of notes here but gauged the piece just right leading to the heroic Rhapsody (43:51) This piece is a triumphant way to end any concert, but does finish on a darker note. Until then, Brahms develops the theme, moving by 46:30 to a mood that recalls the previous Intermezzo. Then the main tune returns with great force (47:37), and just as it looks like a sunny ending Brahms plunges us into the minor key, signing off with great fire and brimstone.

To calm the waters after this, Guy returned to Debussy, and the first book of Préludes – with the most famous excerpt of all, Clair de lune (49:52-53:55).

Further listening

François-Frédéric Guy has not yet recorded any of the music heard in this concert – however the below Spotify playlist includes some leading versions of the repertoire heard:

Unfortunately the Tristan Murail is not available anywhere yet; however his complete piano music up until 2013 can be heard here in recordings made by Marilyn Nonken:

For more Debussy, Mitsuko Uchida’s album of the Études, another extension of a form pioneered by Chopin, can be heard here in an award-laden disc:

Late Brahms is one of the pinnacles of the Romantic piano repertoire, and few recorded it with the authority of Steven Kovacevich, heard here in a wonderful album for Philips:

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website