According to my records, pianists have been preparing for acknowledging the centennial of the death of Claude Debussy on March 25, 2018 for more than a year. Nevertheless, the Hyperion label seems to have made its mark with the first all-Debussy release in 2018 itself. That release will be the label’s latest recording of pianist Stephen Hough; and the album will consist entirely of Debussy’s music for solo piano. For those who wish to get the jump on Hyperion getting the jump on things, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders for this CD.
While Debussy was only 55 when he died, he had lived through what the Chinese like to call “historical times.” If the early death itself was not dramatic enough, it took place when Paris was under both aerial and artillery attack as part of the German Spring Offensive of World War I. Of greater musical significance, Debussy had César Franck as a teacher when he was a student and Igor Stravinsky as a colleague during the final years of his life. His “life in music” may not have been as tumultuous as a sustained military engagement; but he still managed to live through more “tectonic aesthetic shifts” than most of his nineteenth-century predecessors.
Given the breadth of Debussy’s experiences, it is somewhat interesting that the scope of Hough’s album fits into a single decade. Taken in roughly chronological order, the selections are the Estampes collection (1903), “L’isle joyeuse” (composed between 1903 and 1904), the first Images collection (1905), the Children’s Corner suite (composed between 1906 and 1908), the second Images collection (1907), and “La plus que lente” (1910). It would not surprise me if Hough intended to work with this limited scope. I have been aware of his intellectual side for some time and used to follow his column for the London Telegraph until it was situated behind a paywall. I may have disagreed with many of Hough’s ideas, but I have always been interested in reading them. As a result, I was more than a little disappointed to discover that the booklet notes did not offer Hough’s thoughts on why he chose to record these six pieces but, instead, offered only Roger Nichols’ perspectives on each of them.
The fact is that, as is the case with so many (if not all) of the composers that our society has chosen to treat as “museum-piece” icons, those who choose to perform Debussy’s music can situate it in a wide diversity of contexts, each of which admits of its own unique approach to interpretation. Readers recall my annoyance with Bryce Morrison, who used the booklet notes for the Warner Classics release of Walter Gieseking playing Debussy’s piano music to declare Gieseking “the greatest of all Debussy pianists.” Clearly, it would be folly to try to use Gieseking as some sort of yardstick against which to assess the activity of listening to Hough. Nevertheless, I suspect that I am far from the only one who enjoys those Gieseking recordings; and it would be just as foolish to think that we can listen to Hough without some degree of “reverberating memories” of Gieseking.
In one respect this is not entirely a bad thing. Gieseking knew how to prioritize the marks that Debussy put on his score pages, and that means that giving a clear account of all those notes was one of his goals in preparing those recordings. This is no minor observation, since there are too many pianists whose right foot leans on the damper all too heavily, as if they want Debussy’s notes to be only vaguely perceived though a fog of other sustained tones. Hough definitely stands with those who begin by establishing clarity and then seek out expressiveness in that context. On the other hand I am not yet sure of how Hough wishes to use his expressiveness to direct my attention.
Nevertheless, to be fair, this is no easy matter. I have only listened to Hough’s recording a few times. My guess is that, over the course of this centennial year, I shall return to it several times. (Given my listening workload, I shall not commit myself to the adverb “frequently!”) I anticipate that my perception of Hough’s expressiveness will find its own niche in my “listening consciousness,” just as Gieseking’s interpretations have done already. My only regret is that my own personal keyboard technique is far from up to my trying to find my own way through all of those thoroughly engaging pieces that Debussy wrote!