Fascinating Portrait of Debussy in Words and Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rêverie – The Lives and Loves of Claude Debussy: Lucy Parham (piano), Alex Jennings (narrator), Chipping Campden Music Festival, St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 11.5.2014. (RJ)

Debussy: Danse bohémienne; Arabesque No 1; La soirée dans Grenade; Pagodes; La fille aux cheveux de lin; Jardins sous la pluie; Des pas sur la neige; Reflets dans l’eau; Poissons d’or; Golliwog’s Cakewalk; Clair de lune; Étude “pour les huit doigts”; L’Isle joyeuse.


Lucy Parham is no ordinary pianist. She is a former winner in the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, but winning a competition is no guarantee of enduring success in the competitive world of classical music performance. Fortunately she has another string to her bow (or piano?): the ability to get inside the personality of the composers whose music she plays and to devise programmes of words and music which enable audiences to share the experience. Over the years she has devised musical portraits of Liszt and Chopin and explored the relationship between Brahms and the Schumanns through their letters, diaries and music. To celebrate the 150th anniversary celebrations of Debussy two years ago she did the honours for this composer as well.

The sequence begins to the strains of Rêverie with the 54 year old composer in his final hours looking back on his life from humble origins to world renowned composer. There is little attempt to arrange works in chronological sequence; the aim is to find ones which suit the mood of the letters he writes. Thus La filleaux cheveux de lin expresses the effect his first wife Lily Texier has on him ….. for a time anyway …….. and Clair de lune shows his feelings for his second wife when he is travelling far from home. But there are exceptions, such as the rarely heard Danse bohémienne which as a young man he sent for approval to Tchaikovsky (who was rather dismissive of it) and one of the preludes he wrote during the First World War, which he confessed to being incapable of playing himself.

Debussy was not a handsome man, unlike Alex Jennings who took on his persona for the evening, yet he seemed to attract women like flies starting with the singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier with whom he had a relationship that was not always strictly professional. Then there was Gaby Dupont with whom he lived for seven years while having plenty of affairs on the side. His first marriage ended in disaster with Lily attempting suicide after he dumped her but he seems to have found true love and friendship finally with his second wife Emma Bardac. The nonchalant Jennings managed to bring out Debussy’s callous (or cavalier?) attitude to women and his self-obsession with great skill, but without losing the sympathy of the audience. This was far from being a reading of letters and diaries; Jennings WAS Debussy.

As for Lucy Parham, she was on excellent form caressing the notes in Pagodes to create an Oriental atmosphere, as Debussy instructed, and giving a wonderful rendition of Jardins sous la pluie in which you could just imagine the composer walking out on Lily into the pouring rain. On a happier note, his delight in his daughter Chouchou was nicely conveyed in the Golliwog’s Cakewalk, one of the pieces he wrote especially for her, while the crowning glory of the evening was a passionate and exhilarating performance of L’isle joyeuse.

The evening was perhaps less challenging than some concerts I have been to lately, but it was put together impeccably and shed new light on some of Debussy’s best loved works. And for the Chipping Campden audience it acted as a welcome bridge between the town’s festival of literature and the glorious fortnight of music making which is just starting.

The Chipping Campden Music Festival continues until May 24th. For details contact www.campdenmusicfestival.co.uk.

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