For Debussy’s 150th Birthday, High on the Wow Meter

United StatesUnited States Debussy: Craig Sheppard (piano), Meany Hall, Seattle, 23.10.2012 (BJ)

The first of two recitals in which Craig Sheppard is celebrating  Debussy (the second is scheduled for next April), this evening devoted to the complete Preludes registered very high on the wow meter. Being not only the University of Washington’s professor of piano but himself a formidable exponent of the instrument, Sheppard played with all the technical mastery and acuity of musical penetration that his explorations of Schubert and Brahms in recent seasons had led me to expect.

Why, then, did I catch my mind wandering – reprehensibly in a critic – during the early stages of this recital? I wish I understood Debussy. What perhaps inhibits understanding for me is the fact that line, texture, and logic, as distinct from sonority and gesture, are what tend to dominate in my appreciation of music. (A distinguished critical colleague, the late Felix Aprahamian, perceptively told me years ago that the reason I didn’t like Delius was that I was essentially a counterpoint man, whereas Delius was all about harmony.)

By the time we reached the beginning of Book 2 after intermission, Sheppard had me firmly hooked. In every respect relevant to what makes Debussy Debussy, his performances were perfectly dazzling. From one piece to the next, he laid bare all the composer’s subtleties of sound and clarity of rhetoric, and the program culminated in a brilliant account of Feux d’artifice, stunning in the sheer virtuosity and tonal beauty of the playing.

And yet I was left wondering whether presenting all 24 Preludes together in recital is actually a good idea. Yes, they were published as two unified volumes, in 1910 and 1913 respectively. But it is worth noting that they were given their first and other early performances piecemeal, by the composer himself and other pianists including Ricardo Viñes and Franz Liebich, either individually or in assemblages of two to four pieces, and I think they work better heard that way.

Still, it was indubitably a pleasure to hear such impeccable artistry brought to their performance – and also to read Sheppard’s literate and penetrating program note, which was positively Proustian, beginning as it did with a sentence 160 totally lucid words long.

Bernard Jacobson