Program by track: 1) Debussy: La damoiselle élue – Prélude; 2) Rameau: Piéces de Clavecin (1724), Le Rappel des oiseaux; 3) Rigaudons 1, 2 & Double; 4) Musette en rondeau; 5) Tambourin; 6) La Villageoise; 7) Gigues en rondeau 1 & 2; 8) Debussy: Estampes, 3. Jardins sous la pluie; 9) Children's Corner, 3. Serenade for the Doll; 10) 4. The Snow Is Dancing; 11) Rameau: Piéces de Clavecin (1724), Les Tendres Plaintes; 12) Les Tourbillons, 13) L'entretien des Muses; 14) Debussy: Préludes, Book 1, Des pas sur la neige 15) Rameau: Piéces de Clavecin (1724), La joyeuse; 16) Les Cyclopes; 17) Rameau/Vikingur Ólafsson: The Arts and the Hours; 18) Debussy: Préludes Book 1, 8. La fille aux cheveux de lin; 19) Préludes Book 2, 8. Ondine; 20) Rameau: Cinquième concert, 2. La Cupis 21) Quatrième concert, 2. L'indiscrète; 22) 3. La Rameau; 23) Nouvelle Suites de Piéces de Clavecin, La Poule; 24) L'Enharmonique; 25) Menuets 1 & 2; 26) Les Sauvages; 27) L'Égyptienne; 28) Debussy: Images Book 1, Hommage à Rameau
By Karl W. Nehring
Having previously enjoyed and reviewed recordings by Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson featuring the music of Bach and Philip Glass, I have been most eager to audition his latest release, which features music from two French composers who were separated temporally by a century and a half, the well-known and hugely influential Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the much less well-known (at least in our modern era) Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Vikingur ("Olafsson" is a patronymic, so it is appropriate to refer to the pianist in what might appear to be an overly familiar manner) is a remarkable pianist who carefully considers the program for his recordings. As he explains in his liner notes, he was familiar with Debussy's keyboard music for as long as he can remember, but did not encounter the music of Rameau until his student days in New York, where he heard a 1951 recording by the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels of a Rameau composition and was impressed by how well it seemed to lend itself to being played on a modern piano.
However, as he goes on to say, "it wasn't until the spring of 2019 as I waited (and waited and waited and waited) for the birth of my first child that I finally had the chance, having cleared some weeks in my concert schedule, to sit down with all of Rameau's published keyboard works and read through every one of them. A world of wonder revealed itself. Ingenious works of remarkable diversity, rarely programmed or recorded on the modern instrument. Incidentally, what I experienced in the music of Rameau had been aptly put into words in 1903 by a certain Claude Debussy, who had been swept away by a performance of the first two acts of Rameau's opera Castor et Pollux… In his superlative review, he described the nusic as 'so personal in tone, so new in construction, that space and tine are defeated and Rameau seems to be [our] contemporary.'"
Vikingur goes on to recount that "curiously, the more time I spent with Rameau's keyboard music, the more my mind wandered to Debussy and the seemingly unlikely affinity of that revolutionary, who openly disregarded tradition and denounced all musical rules except the law of pleasure, to the founding father of French music theory and pedagogy… Side by side, their keyboard works allow us to revel in the delightful paradoxes of great music: the wild progressiveness of Rameau is illuminated by Debussy's historically informed sense of detail and proportion – and vice versa… Another shared element of these two giants of French music is what could be called a synaesthetic streak. In my view, a certain blending of sensory experience seems natural to how the two approached music."
Then on to Rameau, some selections from his 1724 set of keyboard pieces. The music is brisk and bright, featuring dance rhythms, with Vikingur's fingers dancing on the keyboard in delight, then shifting to a slower, more dreamlike mood that shifts to a more energetic approach as Vikingur returns to Debussy for three cuts.
The first of these, "Jardins sous la pluie," returns to a more rapid tempo. In light of the Rameau that he has just played, Vikingur leads us to feel that this music by Debussy is similar to what we have just heard from Rameau, but with a different harmonic structure, painting a similar picture but with different colors and textures of musical paint. Moving on to the two familiar sections from Children's Corner, Vikingur brings fresh light and life to music that many of us have heard many times before (Debussy fans of a certain age might have vivid memories – favorable or unfavorable – of Tomita's Snowflakes are Dancing, for example). And yes, Vikingur's interpretation reminds is that yes, the snow is dancing, perhaps having fallen while listening to some Rameau…
The program then shifts back to three more short pieces by Rameau from the 1724 set. Although Vikingur is playing a modern piano, his lively touch on these pieces ranges from tender to brisk, at times evoking the feeling of the harpsichord, particularly in his lively rendition of "Les Tourbillons."
The transition between the next two pieces, "L'entretien des Muses" by Rameau and "Des pas sur la neige" by Debussy, highlights Vikingur's way of seeing these two temporally disparate composers as musically intertwined in some significant ways. The wistful spell cast by the reflective Rameau is maintained in the Debussy. Truly, the Debussy sounds as if it is a continuation of the Rameau, not a copy or imitation, but a musical soul mate. Interestingly, both pieces have similar peaceful endings. Vikingur plays both these pieces with a loving, reflective touch. The concluding measures of the Debussy evoke feelings of blissful episodes from your life that your heart longs to keep securely stored in your mind so that they can be recalled in moments of pleasant introspection.
Following a couple more Rameau pieces from the 1724 set that return to a lighter, more lively style, we come to the track that fully embodies Vikingur's study of and appreciation for the music of the French master, The Arts and the Hours. Vikingur based this composition on an music from Rameau's final opera, Les Boreades, which he wrote in 1763 at the age of 80. The pianist explains in his liner notes that he "transcribed it for the modern piano because its colorful resonance allows for new and interesting textural possibilities in a piece that seems so ahead of its time; its rich harmonies of suspended 9ths and 11ths one could almost imagine Mahler writing in the late 19th century. In the original opera, based on a Greek legend, the interlude bears a somewhat lengthy title: "The Arrival of the Muses, Zephyrs, Seasons, Hours and the Arts." As all of these mythical beings summoned to the stage have something to do with the arts and with time's passing, I allowed myself to call my transcription simply The Arts and the Hours, with a nod to the Greek aphorism best known in its Latin version as 'Ars Longa, vita brevis.'"
After a simple but emotionally and sonically resonant opening, the music adopts a songlike quality: an aria from the keyboard. My scribbled listening notes read, "lovely tunes expressively performed, Vikingur pouring heart & soul into it." (By the way, there is a lovely video of Vikingur performing The Arts and the Hours available on YouTube.)
Then comes another remarkable transition, as the next cut takes us back to Debussy, this time the magical "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," featuring a haunting melody that will no doubt be both familiar to and beloved by many music lovers. In this setting, the piece seems to fit in so naturally following the previous track, with Vikingur once again subtly varying tempo and touch. So too with the next Debussy piece, "Ondine," which is again wistful and imaginative, with a lingering passage about two minutes in that is just so beautiful, so beautiful...
That same reflective tone and sensitive touch at the keyboard carries the listener through the transition back to the music of Rameau, beginning with three selections from his Pieces de clavecin en concerts from 1741. Vikingur performs the first piece, "La Cupis," with much the same subtle expressiveness he had exhibited in the preceding Debussy. To my ears at least, "La Cupis," feels like a "farewell" piece, music that could be used in a movie soundtrack for a scene depicting the parting of a pair of lovers. The next few tracks featuring music of Rameau ore more energetic, playfully culminating in a musical depiction of a barnyard in "La Poule," but then the chickens seem to have become philosophers as depicted by Vikingur's more thoughtful tone for "L'Enharmonic." The final three Rameau compositions on the program find Vikingur's playing returning to the dance-like, playful style of some of the earlier cuts, with his fleet fingers sometimes seeming to dance merrily up and down the keyboard with joyful exuberance. .
For the final composition included in this release, Vikingur returns to Debussy for the fittingly titled "Hommage a Rameau." With smoothly managed tempo and volume changes, Vikingur shows his deep affection for the music and the legacies of both composers. Especially touching is the quiet ending, with the final soft note being held for several seconds as it fades into final silence. Vikingur's comments about this piece also serve as evidence for his interest in and regard for these two French masters: "[Debussy] was always forward-thinking, even when looking back in time – just as he was meticulous in his craft even when actively reflecting tradition. Much has been written about Debussy's firm roots in the French Baroque and the complicated way in which Rameau influenced not just his music, but also his identity as a French composer. To me, however, this piece epitomizes in simpler terms his relationship with Rameau. As a gesture, it is a nod, not a bow – from one great artist to another, signalling the recognition of spiritual relatedness, rather than a disciple's gratitude to a teacher."
The engineering on this CD is very good. The piano sound is full-bodied. There are no extraneous noises – grunting, clicking fingernails, and other such distractions do not make any unwelcome appearances. I was rather shocked, ion fact, to see on an Amazon Germany site I somehow stumbled across that someone had posted a review slamming this release for its "poor sound quality." I cannot begin to fathom any rational justification for such a judgment. This is a well-engineered production. (As another aside, I recently spoke with an audiophile friend who commented that he did not understand how anyone with a strong regard for audio quality could bear to listen to piano music from a vinyl LP in this day and age.) Moreover, Vikingur once again provides an extensive liner note essay on the music and his approach to it that is fascinating and enlightening. The artwork and layout of the included booklet are attractive and readable, even to "mature" eyes such as mine, and the CD is packed with nearly 80 minutes of music. Vikingur Olafsson and DG have hit another home run (oh, how I miss baseball in this year of COVID-19!) with this release and I look forward eagerly to the next one. Perhaps some piano music by Valentin Silvestrov, John Cage, Maurice Ravel, Jean Sibelius, Isaac Albéniz, or dare I even hope, Bill Evans?
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: