January 2018, a Tuesday afternoon at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, a venerable institute that was founded in 1898, we meet Eliane Rodrigues in the new, modern location of the Conservatory. She’s enthusiastic, as ever:
“I’m often astonished to see that many lovers of classical music consider Claude Debussy as a somewhat mellow and sentimental composer, writing diffuse and melancholic music. For a lot of people his name is only associated with the delicate “Clair de lune”, the dreamlike “Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune” and with the wonderful orchestral textures of his symphonic masterpieces like “La Mer” and “Nocturnes”. But really…I hope that this year, the celebration of his death -which was 100 years ago- opens our hearts and ears to the very exciting diversity of his genius.”
Eliane Rodrigues was born in Rio de Janeiro. A child prodigy indeed: she started composing at three, played her first recital at five, and performed with an orchestra at the ages of six and seven. She won prizes at the Van Cliburn Competition (USA) when she was just 18, and became laureate at the 1983 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. Soon after Belgium became her new homeland.
“When I was a child, learning to play the piano, and as a student in Rio de Janeiro, it was natural to learn music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, and of course Claude Debussy as well. He really was a key figure in the transition of classical and romantic music into the fascinating new music of the 20th century. When Debussy became famous, critics started comparing his music to impressionism in painting, to symbolism in poetry, and so on, but he definitely did not like to be categorized in such ways.
One of the many things I admire is his view on the essence of music. It’s a beautiful quote, when Debussy speaks about “...a freedom which music possesses, perhaps to a greater degree than any other art, not being tied to a more or less exact reproduction of nature but to the mysterious correspondences between nature and Imagination”. I love that because his music often has this mysterious quality that’s impossible to explain…He said that he tried to write “something different” and sometimes described it as “colours and rhythmicised time”. I know it sounds elusive…but listen very carefully and you will discover his world…and some of the hidden secrets of your own soul as well.”
Besides her career as a concert pianist and teacher, Eliane became the leading artist of the summer festival Música Romântica in Saas-Fee (Switzerland) since 1998, performing as a soloist and conducting orchestras as well. She also started composing her own piano music (Momentos Musicais) and a piano concerto premiered at the festival in 2002.
A remarkable recent album was her collection of all 8 (!) Beethoven piano concerti: the five piano concerti, the triple concerto, the piano-transcription of the violin concerto and the choir fantasy. This album was re-released in 2017 by Navona Records, after the recording of a brand new Chopin album Notturno.
Eliane remembers: “Well, there’s a funny story about that….Every year after Christmas I give a Chopin-recital in Rotterdam, at concert hall “De Doelen”. In 2016 there was, at the very beginning of the recital, a serious problem with a pedal of the piano. It simply didn’t function as it should’ve and I asked for technicians to help out.’ Their solution was to replace the piano with a new one. They put the piano on a platform that went below stage and I decided to go down with the piano, while playing on… just for fun. After switching the piano I came back on stage the same way! The video of this incident went viral on YouTube, reaching more than a million views….Producers of ParmA Recordings saw it too and contacted me. This resulted in a new Chopin-cd and the new Debussy-project.”
The program Eliane chose for this album starts with the Suite Bergamasque, composed in 1890, but published only fifteen years later. The title refers to “Clair de lune” a famous poem by Paul Verlaine, with this opening verse:
“Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.” (*)
“Your soul is a delicate landscape - Where roam charming masks and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost - Sad under their whimsical disguises.”
Let’s use this “well-known” piece to enter the somewhat hidden and complex inner world of Debussy. Paul Verlaine; refers to the “Fêtes galantes” from the famous 18th century painter Antoine Watteau, with aristocrats galantly dancing and flirting in open air with masqued figures from the Commedia dell’arte. One of them was Pedrolino, the comic servant (foolish and clever and even sly at the same time), dressed in a white over-sized wardrobe and speaking the dialect of Bergamo. This character later became “Pierrot” in France. Thanks to the late pantomime-player Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who died in 1846, Pierrot turned into a legendary cult-figure in the 19th century. Since then we all know this famous sad clown with a painted tear on his white face, “Pierrot lunaire”, madly in love with Columbine... but in vain. Pierrot pervaded the arts of the fin de siècle in France and elsewhere, inspired Debussy, Stravinsky (in the ballet Petrushka), Schoenberg and… ultimately the art of Charlie Chaplin as well.
In 1882 Debussy, at the aged of 20, had already composed some settings of Verlaine’s “Fêtes Galantes”, including “Pantomime” and a setting of Theodore de Banville’s poem “Pierrot”. In 1915, some years before his death, Debussy considered to give a subtitle to his Cello Sonata : “Pierrot faché avec la lune” (Pierrot angry with the moon). The sonata follows a descriptive scenario of Pierrot’s frustration over his unrequited love.
This archetypal “Moonstruck Pierrot” gives a clue to why this “Clair de lune” is not to be played in a sentimental way. Few people know this, but at first Debussy named this piece “Promenade sentimentale”. It’s quite clear why he skipped that title and changed it into “Clair de lune”. It’s not a sentimental walk of lovers on a moonlit night, but suggesting the painful ambiguity and loneliness of the sad, white clown in the moonlight. Listening to Eliane Rodrigues playing this famous score, you can hear that she probes into the deep and even disturbing feelings Debussy wanted to express.
Mixed feelings and ambiguity abound in the music of Debussy, even when he reminiscenses to seemingly innocent old dance forms like minuet, passepied, sarabande. Around 1900 not only Debussy but Western society as a whole were in doubt whether they were living in a “Belle époque” or in a “Fin de siècle”, or both at the same time. Some people feared those times were decadent, others were happy to discover Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, and new freedom. Debussy’s expression of these contrasts and mixed feelings was not some hazy ‘impressionism’ but a kaleidoscope of very intriguing music, “modernity” and as such still touching our hearts and minds in the 21th century. Read: “There is no theory. You only have to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from the barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth, an open-air art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.” (Claude Debussy)
“It’s so true that the multi-layered music of Debussy is shimmering with contrasting feelings and stories, beneath and beyond the notes. He didn’t like old conventions strict rules at all, and I like that attitude because my soul is untameable as well. What I search for in a composer, always, is not only to play all the notes he wrote, but to tell the stories that are hidden in them. I do that not only as a pianist, with all the technical facilities I gathered over the years, but as a composer as well, which I am too….Modest of course, in comparison with the great masters, but it sure helps me to decipher the scores in depth.
I want to offer the listeners freedom to understand the stories in and behind the music. That’s my passion. All the technical demands, the ways to produce shading and dynamics in sound, etc...aren’t demonstrations of virtuosity (“m’as-tu vu” as they say in French), but ways to serve the content and expression of the music, the composer”.
Debussy’s Ballade from 1890 lost its qualifying adjective “Slave” (slavonic) when he reissued it in 1903. The work is almost totally monothematic, a theme with some Russian flavour indeed, constructed around the principles of variation technique. “Pour le piano” is a miniature suite with a fast Prelude full of contrasts; the “Sarabande” a very intimate monologue and maybe in some way an hommage to the Sarabande which his dear friend Erik Satie had composed in 1887. The closing “Toccata” is energetic and graceful at the same time.
The “Arabesque” became a popular gem since the early twentieth century: playful, ecstatic, muscular. The two books of Images date from Debussy full maturity and contain, as he wrote “my most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry” (Reflets dans l’eau), an hommage to the great clavicinist Jean-Philippe Rameau and a funny, sometimes frenzied toccata-like movement.
In the second book Debussy uses three poetic images to stir the imagination of the listeners. More complex and challenging for pianists, ambitious, and full of textural density.
“Et la lune descend…” may have been inspired by Chinese poetry, and uses some of the exotic Javanese Gamelan music he heard in Paris during the World Exhibition of 1889. “Poissons d’or” was inspired by Japanese artworks and refers to goldfish moving playfully but sometimes frenetic as well, being trapped in a bowl…
As a bonus to this album you can find Debussy’s popular suite “Children’s Corner“ online, dedicated to his three-year old daughter Chouchou. These 6 miniatures were not meant for children to play but rather to evoke the fantasies of youth, dreamlike and joyful.
Listening to this Debussy as played by Eliane Rodrigues is a revelation, for many reasons. First of all she possesses the quality to produce an astonishing kind of pianissimo, which doesn’t sound as if it’s almost inaudible, no : her tone and expression remain lively and firm, even when it’s near to utter silence.
Secondly, she respects the way Debussy wanted crescendos to be played. It was one of his obsessions to not exaggerate or dramatize them. According to E. R. Schmitz, “He liked slight crescendos, a ppp increasing into a mere pp. Such tiny changes were meaningful and important to his art.”
Thirdly, she clearly knows that Debussy himself played the piano with a remarkable delicacy and mellowness of touch. Marguerite Long, who worked with him, also emphasized this: “One must forget that the piano has hammers,” was one of his most frequent sayings.
It’s clear that Eliane Rodrigues doesn’t want to make a blurred, so-called “impressionist,’ sound by using the pedal in a wrong way. Debussy said: “The quiet truth is, perhaps, that the abuse of the pedal is only a means of hiding a lack of technique, and then, too, one must make a lot of noise so that no one can hear the music which one is butchering!”
But what matters most is that Eliane Rodrigues shows in this album that she has an intimate connection with the diversity of images and visions in Debussy’s mind and music. Very often he is complex and ambiguous, serene and mysterious, and at the same time, provocative and soothing. What’s a paradox? A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which, when investigated, may prove to be well founded or true. Debussy had the courage to investigate.
This album is an exhilirating quest into his wonderful piano music. It shows how a mature pianist like Eliane Rodrigues knows how to be a pure musician: being a servant to the truth and beauty of the fascinating legacy of Claude Debussy.
Notes by Karel Nijs
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