Monday, February 19, 2018

Debussy Rises Above Schumann and Prokofiev

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, pianist Yefim Bronfman presented a solo recital as the latest offering in the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony. The first half of his program was devoted entirely to Robert Schumann, while the second half was divided between Claude Debussy and Sergei Prokofiev. Taken as a whole, the evening was a mixture of insights and disappointments.

Most satisfying was his account of Claude Debussy’s 1890 Suite bergamasque. This may have been Bronfman’s way of reminding us that we are a little more than a month away from the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s death. However, Debussy was not yet 30 when he wrote this suite, a time when he was not particularly certain about his future as a composer.

Those who know the title of the suite at all, probably know it best because one of its movements is “Clair de lune.” Familiar as that music is, most of its admirers probably do not know that the title comes from an 1869 poem by Paul Verlaine, let alone that the poem inspired the entire suite. Scott Foglesong’s notes for the program book elaborated on this point by quoting four lines of the poem (in English translation):
Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masques and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
The noun “Bergamasque” refers to the Italian town of Bergamo; and, when we encounter it at the end of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it refers to an Italian folk dance similar to the tarantella. Verlaine uses his poetic license to transform two kinds of performance into those doing the performing.

Except for the “Clair de lune” movement, the suite is a reflection on pre-Classical suites, each of whose movements presented a different dance form, all of which may be introduced by a prelude. “Clair de lune” is preceded by such a prelude followed by a minuet; and it is followed by a passepied. However, Debussy is far less interested in dance forms than Johann Sebastian Bach was. His attention is more devoted to Verlaine’s whimsical sadness, punctuated every now and then by evoking the lutes being plucked by those personified masques and bergamasques.

Bronfman’s account of the full score of this suite could not have been more attentive to the rich amount of detail that Debussy packed into it. However, there was also a clear sense that Bronfman was aware of those lines by Verlaine that capture the “code” of Debussy’s music. The result was a level of expressiveness that was evocative of poetry (or at least those four lines of poetry) without ever compromising the meticulous detail behind all of Debussy’s marks on paper. As we look back on Debussy’s life and works during this “memorial” period, Bronfman has clarified the view with an engagingly perceptive account of one of the composer’s earliest pieces.

The Prokofiev selection that followed could not have been more of a jolt. Bronfman played the Opus 83 (seventh) sonata in B-flat major, the second of the three “War Sonatas” composed between 1940 and 1944. In my own personal experiences, this is the one of the three that gets performed in recital most often. One reason may be that the references to war are at their most explicit, beginning with the marching of the troops in the very opening measures to charging headlong into the chaos of battle itself in the final movement. Ironically, the blatant blood-and-guts rhetoric of the outer movements is given a break during the second movement with one of Prokofiev’s most lyrical instances of piano composition (with a little help from a citation of Robert Schumann’s “Wehmut” song from his Opus 39 Liederkreis song cycle).

Ironically, Schumann as cited by Prokofiev fared far better than Schumann in his own right. The program began with two of the solo piano compositions that Schumann wrote in 1839, the Opus 18 arabesque followed by the Opus 20 cycle entitled Humoreske. These pieces could not be more different. Opus 18 is a straightforward rondo, more interested in exploring the repeated theme in changing contexts than any of the visual connotations of the piece’s name. However, departure from the literal is even more obvious in the complete lack of humor (or any other form of light rhetoric) in Opus 20. In contrast to the programmatic structure of a piece like the Opus 9 Carnaval, Opus 20 barrels its way from one hyper-charged abstract piece to the next, almost defying the attentive listener to make sense of it all.

Josef Kreihuber’s lithograph of Robert Schumann, made in the year when Opus 18 and Opus 20 were composed (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Bronfman did not do such a listener any favors. In both selections he was fixated on the technical issues of getting all the notes in their proper place. However, there was little by way of sense as to why each of those notes belonged in its designated place. Ultimately, the music was treated as little more than a technical exercise. The demands of that exercise made achievement impressive but not particularly satisfying.

Bronfman took only one encore, the E major (third) étude from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection of twelve. This served well as the calm after Prokofiev’s storm. Nevertheless, it was a bit saddening to encounter so much expressiveness in such a short piece after hardly any expressiveness had been accorded to Schumann at the beginning of the evening.

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