Powerful Playing from Eric le Sage Works Better for Beethoven and Schumann than for Debussy in Istanbul

TurkeyTurkeyDebussy, Beethoven, Schumann: Eric Le Sage (piano) at Sakip Sabanci Museum ‘The Seed’, Istanbul 7.10.2011 (AM)

Debussy: Images Set 1, L. 110; L’isle joyeuse, L. 106
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
Schumann: Three Fantasiestücke, Op. 111; Fantasie in C, Op. 17

I like a bellicose Debussy, I really do. For example, I am often tempted by Alexis Weissenberg’s virile approach – particularly after a long exposure to the customary celestial readings. As ethereal as they sound, Debussy’s compositions are in fact firmly grounded by certain axioms and maxims, often lost within a mist of drawn-out layers of sustain and whimsical meters. It is therefore refreshing to hear a pianist like Weissenberg who makes an effort to bring out these foundations and musical decorum, especially when performing within the confines of a live environment.

Eric Le Sage took such a shot at Debussy’s first set of Images, but he did it rather harshly. In ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, Debussy imagines a pebble thrown into a pool of water and writes about the consequent ripples in terms of melody and ornaments. The trouble was that Mr. Le Sage threw a rather large stone into a pool of liquid much denser than water. The initial ripples were coarse, and moreover they showed no intention of diminishing as they reached the shore. His rather blaring interpretation failed to gradually build up the tension, leaving us with a somewhat flat performance. ‘Hommage à Rameau’ was more suited to Eric Le Sage’s temperament with its denser writing, sharper chords and lesser requirement for dramatic expression. His chords were timed evenly, and the pianist kept a straight time (in the great baroque composer’s own fashion), thus offering a bonus hommage. The third movement – well, ‘Mouvement’ – has always reminded me of Rameau more than the ‘Hommage’. Its finger animation, revolving around a fast-paced compact set of toccata-like notes is very reminiscent of Rameau’s suites. Mr. Le Sage is proficient in fast semi-quavers and expeditious hand-over-hands. I had no quarrels with the pianist’s technique. However his vision of ‘Images’ lacked a dimension or two.

‘L’île joyeuse’ is one of Debussy’s rare attempts at the formal sonata form. The music jumps from scale to scale as it progresses from an exposition towards a development and ends in recapitulation. The music has an incredible forward impetus and the performer is expected to keep it under control while augmenting the tonal and dynamic range in a consistent fashion. Eric Le Sage’s performance reminded me vaguely of Samson François’ take on this piece, in which he blends the development section equally between the exposition and the recapitulation, breaking with the sonata form which Debussy conjures up in my mind, but making up for it by laying out a unified structure and continuously gaining momentum until the very last low ‘A’ brings it to an abrupt halt. I commend the pianist’s effort here.

The Beethoven sonata Mr. Le Sage opted to play this evening is probably the only ‘intimate’ one among the composer’s late sonatas. The pianist was aggressive in his overall approach to the Op. 109 E major sonata, and thus many subtle mood changes, particularly in the first movement, went unnoticed. The prestissimo was closer to home for him, with its eruptive Schumann-esque temperament. Eric Le Sage’s Beethoven had a sense of urgency that worked well in presto sections, but less so during the second and fourth variations where Beethoven calls for restraint.

The second part of the evening was dedicated to Schumann. The three Op. 111 Fantasiestücke pieces came first. Mr. Le Sage showed much sleight in the first one -particularly in the fast left hand arpeggios that provide a disturbing background to the right hand melody, which is trying hard to be pleasing. The berceuse-like initial theme of the second Fantasie was played hurriedly towards the disturbance that arrives in the middle: the part which the pianist preferred to bring out. The third Fantasie is perhaps the only one in which we hear segments from Schumann’s genius of earlier piano works. Eric Le Sage kept up a brilliant sonority, which matched the piece’s triumphant echo perfectly.

Schumann’s magnificent Op. 17 Fantasie in C was to bring the evening to a close. The sheer amount of melodic material used by the composer in this piece is phenomenal, of course. And he makes no effort to bring them together. He leaves question marks everywhere (something he did again soon after, albeit to a lesser extent, in his op. 18 Arabesque). Performers are consequently not obliged to form a unified whole out of the score in front of them – something that gives them tremendous freedom to experiment. Eric Le Sage chose to be on the desultory end of the spectrum, and he was fiery from the get-go. Although there were moments of discomfiture and a little too much spacey-ness, it was a solid performance. The pianist finally showed us a gentler side to his performance in the trio. Yes, he was still impetuous, but his intricate dynamic control resulted in a bitter-sweet rendition. His dance rhythm in the final movement was not for the faint-hearted, but his sense of swing was once again evident.

Overall, it was a satisfying performance, but Le Sage’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach did not sit very well with Debussy.

Alain Matalon