Chamber Music Northwest review: Pièces de Résistance

Summer festival opens with Debussyan delights, defiance.


A hundred years ago today, a shot heard around the world killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and within weeks Europe plunged into World War I. Long-simmering resentments and rivalries erupted all over the continent, and its greatest ever flowering of artistic optimism withered and collapsed.

The leading French figure of that flowering, and the first musical modernist, Claude Debussy, who had wrestled with the rampant Wagnerian esthetic of his day, and won, found in himself a streak of fervent patriotism. Though he was too old to go to war, he wrote to his friend and publisher Jacques Durand, “if, to assure victory, they are absolutely in need of another face to bash in, I’ll offer mine without question.”

At first he could not compose, but in the summer of 1915, Debussy was seized with a sudden determination to make a contribution only he could make. In short order this most painstaking of artists nearly doubled his catalog of mature piano music and wrote two chamber sonatas. A third was written over the next two years as he struggled against the cancer that would ultimately kill him. On each, the title page was emblazoned, “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”

Tara Helen O'Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

Tara Helen O’Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The three sonatas, his only so-named essays in what had become a quintessentially German genre, deliberately thrust aside the enemy shades of Haydn and Beethoven to invoke earlier French models. They were his final masterpieces, sadly – three more planned sonatas were never completed. Instead, too weak to be moved, he died in an upstairs bedroom as German shells exploded in the surrounding streets of Paris just months before the armistice.

German music continues to dominate Chamber Music Northwest‘s offerings, like so many classical chamber music festivals. So it seems particularly apropos that in this anniversary year, artistic director David Shifrin chose an all-Debussy concert, including the three sonatas, for the opening salvo. Rounding out the program was the clarinet and piano rhapsody, the great-granddaddy of all contemporary solo flute pieces, Syrinx, and Reed College composer David Schiff’s deft arrangement for clarinet and string quartet, Five Pieces and a Ghost from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. I caught these Tuesday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, and for a short time my always generous appetite for Debussy was well sated.

Debussy was a lover and master of mystery – he once compared music analysis to naughty children taking apart their dolls – and the violin and piano sonata of 1917, his last completed work, may be the most enigmatic of all. Yet there are also big helpings of passion, whimsy and high spirits; it’s mercurial but also highly engaging. One imagines him observing the experiments in ever more highly charged expression instigated by Arnold Schoenberg, himself not only a German patriot but something of an imperialist, and choosing the opposite means to the same ends. While Schoenberg de-emphasized harmonic progression and figuration, and increased contrapuntal density, Debussy amped up direct harmonic contrasts, flaunted figuration, and resolutely kept to at most two independent voices.

Benjamin Beilman and Melvin Chen perform Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano.

Benjamin Beilman and Melvin Chen perform Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At the same time, like Schoenberg, he seemed to be searching for some new underlying musical stimulus. The surfaces became clearer and more sharply etched; the mystery shifted to a deeper structural level. Violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Melvin Chen were clearly up for the adventure and gave the audience a lively and unaffected performance, well earning the enthusiastic applause.

While this sonata deserves much more attention from performers, the First Rhapsody probably deserves less, since it was written just as a test piece for Paris Conservatory clarinetists. However, it seems every professional classical clarinetist has worked hard to learn it, and the name on it is Debussy, so it’s not going away any time soon. Fortunately, this time the clarinetist was Shifrin himself. No one can spin out the long, dreamlike opening phrases better, and his silky delivery was exquisitely supported by Chen’s murmuring tone. They lost a bit of focus as the tempo picked up towards the end, but the final flourish was as brilliant as could be.

Like clarinetists, like flutists. Syrinx may not be the first solo flute piece ever written, but it’s the one with the longest legs. It had a palpable influence on Edgard Varèse, whose seminal Density 21.5  arguably spawned the 20th century’s rash of solo works for nominally ensemble instruments, a genre still alive and kicking today. And yet it’s just a slight thing – a little panting, a soft laugh or two, and some long, long sighs. Tara Helen O’Connor has probably played it as much as Shifrin has played the rhapsody, yet I still caught Pan’s amorous regrets as the eponymous nymph escaped him forever.

Debussy’s solo piano suite Children’s Corner is likewise familiar to every budding pianist, but Schiff’s newly minted arrangements made us hear them with new ears. The sweetly tongue-in-cheek “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” is so pianistic that a vague feeling of great effort for small effect is probably unavoidable, but “Jimbo’s Lullaby” and “The Little Shepherd” sounded so natural they gave the impression they wrote themselves, with Shifrin again in starring roles (on bass clarinet for the elephant Jimbo of course). The most surprising number was “The Snow is Dancing.” It’s another pianistic one, yet Schiff’s sensitive and faithful arrangement perfectly captured both the excitement and poignancy of Debussy’s winter landscape.

Schiff’s riff on “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” called “Golliwogg’s Ghost,” went beyond, pairing his love of Debussy with his love of jazz. Pianist Chen tried to prepare us before the set, with a flamboyant performance of the original. Even so, Schiff’s re-imagining of the melodic line in the style of pioneering jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet was startling at first. Yet surprise quickly turned to delight as Shifrin took it and ran with it. At one high point, he broke out again and again in a bonafide croon, only to have the rest of the parts give him the horselaugh. (In the original, Debussy gleefully reduced one of Richard Wagner’s most iconic utterances, the opening phrase of Tristan und Isolde, to a mere vaudeville lick.) Purists may have been horrified, and no doubt Claude would have had a characteristically waspish response, but I suspect he also would have shared a fair bit of the audience’s appreciative amusement.

The cello and piano sonata is that rarest of Debussy works, in that listening to it, you feel he is sharing his innermost feelings and neither his diverting wit nor his inexhaustible supply of aural pleasures can distract you. In 1915, those feelings must have been overwhelmingly dark and disturbing. The Prologue’s generally mournful cast is punctuated by shivers and defiant outbursts, yet the defiance seems on the edge of anguish. A bitterly mocking Serenade fades out on an echo of that defiance, only to be hijacked by the ambiguous Finale. It seems high-spirited at first, but the direction is “light and nervous,” and indeed it flits nervously between major and minor. The cello is directed to “rip out” a plucked opening surrounded by active piano figuration, and when it finally soars above, there’s as much pain as joy in it. Yet the next minute, it chortles convulsively, and a few seconds after that, it suddenly seems lost in thought.

It’s not hard to hear a bad case of war anxiety in all this. Ultimately, some climactic soaring is interrupted by a few vicious strums out of the Serenade, the most defiant (or anguished) outburst from the Prologue returns on the solo cello in full cry, and the work crashes to a brutal minor-key finish. The composer had traveled a long way from “Clair de Lune”!

Peter Wiley and Melvin Chen perform Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Peter Wiley and Melvin Chen perform Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Cellist Peter Wiley and pianist Chen gave a thoroughly professional and musical performance throughout, yet it mostly seemed dialed down a notch. Given that the festival just started, I wondered if whatever anxiety they drew on for energy had more to do with air travel than anything like war. Or, maybe they were keeping in mind that the composer himself was wary of anything even faintly histrionic, never tiring of skewering Wagner for such things. Fair enough. But even a Debussy must rage and weep on occasion, and if not here, then where?

The concert ended with a mood reminiscent of earlier, happier times. Of the three late sonatas, the one for flute, viola and harp most resembles, at least on the surface, the more familiar Debussy of the Images, of La Mer and of  “Clair de Lune,” either the early piano solo work or the later, much more evocative song. The composer himself observed with some sadness that it was “music of a Debussy whom I no longer know.”

This instrumental combination’s considerable ability to create ravishing sounds is endlessly exploited, but what is mercurial in the other sonatas becomes evanescent here. There is so much beauty and yet it’s hard for the ear to hang onto any of it, which creates its own kind of sadness even as the music seems to evoke classic scenes of frolicking fauns, nymphs and so forth. The more pensive passages, such as the very beginning, and the outer sections of the Interlude movement, make a more lasting impression, but it all seems so fragile.

Flutist O’Connor was joined by violist Paul Neubauer and harpist Nancy Allen in an agile and delicate performance. Maybe it didn’t all hang together as well as it could, but this is a work that seems to slyly thumb its nose at such considerations. Obsession with form and unity was after all, at least in the years leading up to World War I, something primarily indulged in by the German school.  And this was a night which belonged to “Claude de France.”

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer. His Debussy addiction in his formative years was not so sharply focused as that of David Schiff, who jokes that he listened to the iconic orchestral seascape La Mer “about ten times a day for ten years.” But it was certainly powerful and largely continues to this day.

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