Claude Debussy, Images inédites, Estampes, and various works, Alain Planès (August 7, 2007)
French pianist Alain Planès has come to the end of his project to record the complete works of Claude Debussy for solo piano, with the 2-CD set released last spring and last year's disc combining the Suite Bergamasque, Deux Arabesques, Children's Corner, and Images. When Planès comes to the Washington area next month, to play a recital on the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences series, it will be hard to know what to hope for more, that he plays Debussy or Scarlatti sonatas (and we at Ionarts love our Scarlatti sonatas). Just as he made such an impression by playing Scarlatti on a fortepiano, Planès made his 2006 Debussy installment on a historical instrument, a piano built by Julius Blüthner in Leipzig in 1902. (I know their pianos because I grew up not far from the company's U.S. headquarters in Michigan.)
Claude Debussy, Suite Bergamasque, Deux Arabesques, Children's Corner, Images, Alain Planès (May 9, 2006)
This is yet another facet of the polychromatic style of Planès, who was formerly the pianist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain and remains a noted interpreter of 20th-century music. He is also known for his interdisciplinary work, combining music with his other passionate interests, poetry and painting. That mindset, ears on the music and eyes on poetry and art, may be the best possible background from which to approach Debussy, a singularly visual composer ("I like pictures almost as much as music," he supposedly said) who was obsessed with the best poetry of his day. The listener may occasionally long for a broader color chart than the Blüthner instrument can produce, but there is an almost toy-like quality that is perfect for Children's Corner (although in the 21st century, it is hard to see anything about Golliwog's Cakewalk as child's play). Fast, light passages work extremely well, as in the triplet figures of the second arabesque or the light-hearted passepied of the Suite Bergamasque. There is plenty of colorful characterization, especially in Children's Corner and Images, and the instrument is a fascinating aural perspective on what sound Debussy may have heard in his mind and from his own piano.
For his final volume, Planès has returned to the modern piano, a Steinway. The instrument's technological advantages allow for a grander palette of scope and touch, most welcome because this 2-CD set brings together the last two remaining major sets for solo piano. The suite Pour le piano is perhaps not as technically flawless as one might hope, but the textures achieved by voicing and pedaling are widely varied and there is a shimmering quality that is pleasing. The exoticist Estampes is one of my least favorite of the Debussy sets, but Planès makes convincing work of the faux chinoiserie and Spanishisms, aiming for color effects more than anything weightier.
Alain Planès, Debussy:
Études, Masques, L'Isle Joyeuse
The rest of the set is an assortment of oddities, including some works transcribed for solo piano by the composer or others. Planès has mined these curiosities for as many hues and surprises as possible. Some of these small pieces are forgettable juvenilia, which Debussy himself repudiated as too derivative of his Romantic predecessors. Others are noteworthy because of the odd circumstances of their composition, like Les Soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon (Evenings illuminated by the warmth of coal), offered by Debussy to his coal supplier in payment of outstanding debts.
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901947.48 / HMC 901893
Alain Planès will play a recital on the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences series next month (December 9, 4 pm), at Bethesda's Congregation Beth-El.
For his recital at An die Musik LIVE! in Baltimore (December 8, 8 pm), Planès will play the following program: Haydn, Sonata No. 31 in A-flat; Schubert, Sonata in A Major; Debussy, Estampes; Janáček, Sur un sentier herbeux.