Debussy-Rameau (CD Review)

Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 479 7701.

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."

Vikingur Olafsson
As is my usual practice, I did not read the liner notes until after I had done some listening, but my first impression of this recording was along the lines that Vikingur has described. More precisely, my impression was to my mind the result of the sensitive, expressive touch that Vikingur brings to the keyboard. From the opening measures of the opening Debussy Etude, I found myself enthralled by the sound; so colorful, so rich in texture, so nuanced in volume and tempo. The music is dreamy, languid, the notes lingering in the air as the music lingers in the ear while yet moving forward.

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa