Debussy – Suite bergamasque
Préludes, Book II : ‘Ondine’, ‘La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’, ‘Feux d’artifice’
Liszt – Années de pèlerinage : Deuxième année – Italie: ‘Sposalizio’, ‘Il penseroso’ ‘Sonetto del Petrarca no.104’, ‘Sonetto del Petrarca no.123’, ‘Après une lecture de Dante, fantasia quasi sonata’
I had heard good things about Bertrand Chamayou, but this was the first time I had heard him, whether on disc or in the concert hall. Not everything came off equally well in this Wigmore Hall recital, but there was enough to impress in itself and enough to indicate further promise. Debussy and Liszt make natural bedfellows, but not every pianist skilled in the music of one has proved successful in the music of the other. Chamayou’s Debussy was perhaps the more consistently impressive, but his Liszt intrigued too.
The Suite bergamasque announced itself with a muscular opening to the ‘Prélude’, which proceeded with a clarity at odds with lazy ideas of ‘impressionism’. (The description, when it comes to music, surely ought to be shop-soiled enough to leave alone now, with a few exceptions, but alas not.) Liszt hovered in the background and rightly so. Both the ‘Menuet’ and the ‘Passepied’ displayed a keen sense of rhythm, the former more flexible than the latter, which might have benefited from greater warmth. Such was not a problem during the intervening ‘Clair de lune’, whose Romanticism positively invited comparisons with Liszt. Voice-leading suggested that Chamayou’s Chopin – which we heard as an encore, albeit transcribed by Liszt – and his Bach might be well worth hearing.
Clarity was again the hallmark of ‘Ondine’, the first of three Préludes from Debussy’s second book. This was not the razor-sharp, crystal-clear clarity of, say, Pollini, but it was nevertheless Debussy from a modernist perspective, perhaps closer to Ravel than we often hear. ‘La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ came as quite a contrast, its sultry heat and languor suggesting that a night on the terrace would be anything but chaste, post-Wagnerian eroticism very much to the fore. It sounded not quite without bar lines, but was certainly not ruled by them. Frightening insistence of the initial penumbra in ‘Feux d’artifices’ metamorphosed into colourful Lisztian pyrotechnics. Finally, we heard L’Isle joyeuse, in rather similar mould, very much – perhaps a little too much – in primary colours. Whatever one’s judgement in that respect, it was clear that this was very much the pianist’s own reading, with emphasis lying upon Lisztian qualities of harmony as well as technique.
Liszt himself was to be heard following the interval, in the guise of five pieces from the Italian book of the Années de pèlerinage. The opening to ‘Sposalizio’ might have seemed prosaic to some, but Chamayou’s performance had the undoubted merit of laying out the thematic material, almost as if for a class in analysis. Rarely has Schoenberg’s inheritance from Liszt’s motivic transformation seemed so evident in what is still relatively ‘early’ Liszt. The performance did not ignite Romantically as early as many, but that had its own rewards in making clear that this was anything but a picture-postcard. ‘Il penseroso’ did not lack rhetorical grandeur, but harmonic progression – those extraordinary augmented chords and where they lead! – proved more fundamental. The two Petrarch sonnets were a touch studied perhaps, especially were one to compare them with great performances of the past, yet again, seriousness of purpose offered a good deal of compensation for the relative lack of abandon. No.123, however, would almost certainly have benefited from a freer approach to rubato. The ‘Dante Sonata’ certainly had no lack of big-boned Romantic rhetoric at its opening; it was properly arresting, musically and dramatically. Soon, however, it was difficult not to feel that a greater willingness to yield would have benefited what became a somewhat unremitting performance. That said, when Chamayou’s virtuosity was at white heat, it was impressive indeed, and there were passages to savour later on of almost angelic, yet strangely erotic, delicacy. One crucial thing: we were left in no doubt whatsoever of how Liszt had expanded to the nth degree the very possibilities of piano writing.