Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Back in September 1999 six musicians from the Kuijken family and a harpist friend took a break from their Baroque and Classical musical diet and recorded most of the important works that Debussy wrote for chamber ensembles: the string quartet of 1893, Syrinx for solo flute from 1913, and the three late sonatas (for cello & piano, violin & piano, and flute, viola & harp). It's just now been released (or re-released) on the Arcana label with a cover that features the amazing Whistler painting Nocturne in Black and Gold - the Falling Rocket, in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tom Service wrote a short article in the Guardian back in 2012 which resonates with me today. He warns against the idea of reducing Debussy's music to a pretty "impressionism". Looking back on this music a century later we maybe miss out on how new it was, how revolutionary. From today it perhaps seems easier to see the radical nature of Wagner before Debussy, Stravinsky at the same time, and Schoenberg after him. For Debussy, and this is where there is a real connection with the art-for-art's-sake advocate Whistler, his music was radically about one thing: the music itself. As Service says:
The basic point is that Debussy uses music as thing-in-itself. It's not a metaphor for something else, but an experience in its own right. And with Debussy, those are experiences that music hadn't created before, and are, therefore, experiences that the human imagination hadn't had before.
So how do the Kuijkens present this important subset of Debussy's music? Very well, I'd say, though it doesn't always sound like the Debussy we're used to. The string quartet, which of course has a list of rival recordings a mile long, may not sound as polished or as tightly controlled as some versions, but it has a relaxed charm that escapes even highly-rated performances by other groups. Not that they're using gut strings and cutting back on vibrato, by any means, but the Kuijkens come to this music as something new, and that counts for something. The late sonatas were all written during Debussy's significant health problems which began with his first diagnosis with rectal cancer in 1908. Though there is no decline in quality, this music is stripped down, serious without being morbid. It looks, perhaps, to places Debussy hadn't explored in his life before. This seriousness is well communicated by the musicians. I was especially impressed with the contributions of Piet Kuijken in the two pieces featuring the piano, and his cellist uncle (I believe) Wieland.

Chamber music is a quiet art form, well suited to the family circle. But within its circumscribed limits it can still pack a wallop and and set off rockets. Here is Whistler's entire painting; I think it was well chosen to go with this music.

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