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Les Percussions Claviers de Lyon at La Maison Française

The French ensemble Les Percussions Claviers de Lyon offered a delightfully idiosyncratic tribute to Claude Debussy at La Maison Française Tuesday night. As their name indicates, these five players specialize in keyboard percussion, and they filled the stage with marimbas, vibraphones, and other mallet instruments in various sizes, along with some non-pitched ones like cymbals and a tam-tam. Most of these were absent from Western music in Debussy’s time, and he never wrote for them. Nonetheless, their sound is surprisingly apt for his music. In fact, the composer had been deeply inspired by an Indonesian pitched percussion ensemble, or gamelan, at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition.

The concert featured two sets of Debussy arrangements by Les Percussions’s artistic director Gérard Lecointe, alongside two pieces by contemporary composers inspired by Debussy. First were two of his three Nocturnes, scaled down from their original symphonic scoring, followed by four of the twenty-four Préludes enlarged from solo piano. Lecointe’s arrangements artfully transmuted Debussy into a strange, sugared atmosphere of tinklings and rumblings and purrs. The first nocturne, Nuages, usually conjures up the gloomy, wooded setting of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which he was composing at the same time. In the hands of Les Percussions, the wood became a trippy Candy Cane Forest, by turns whimsical, hilarious, and vaguely frightening. The players kept it at a hushed dynamic, letting the music’s many delicate colors come through. Fêtes depicts a festive procession, described by Debussy as a “dazzling fantastic vision”; here it was more like a slightly demented puppet parade. While some might object to this treatment of Debussy, I don’t think it served to distort his music so much as to bring out certain elements already existing within it. The weirdness is Debussy’s, and it’s conceivable he would have used these instruments himself had he known them.

The two contemporary pieces were more inspired by Debussy in spirit than slavish stylistic imitations. They shared his fascination with nonwestern musics: Rigodon, by François Narboni (b. 1963), evoked the complex clangor of gamelan, while Thierry Pécou (b. 1965) paid homage to Mexican marimba traditions with L’arbre aux Fleurs. In structure, both pieces recalled minimalist works by Steve Reich, often employing the same pitched percussion, built from the layering of rhythmic pulses that repeat and then morph into other patterns kaleidoscopically. They also both went on too long and covered too much ground to maintain much cohesion as artistic statements, but they were so hypnotically enjoyable that this could be forgiven. Pécou’s piece featured an interlude on the Aztec teponaztli, a shallow wooden drum. It ended the night dramatically, with all five players gathered around a single marimba in the manner of Mexican folk performers, hammering out diabolically difficult rhythms as one.

The next concert we are looking forward to at La Maison Française is a recital by harpsichordist Christophe Rousset (April 12, 7:30 pm), followed by a recital at the Library of Congress (April 13, 2 pm).

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