CD Review: Journeys—Tony Tobin plays Claude Debussy (Telepherique Productions, 2012, 56 minutes)

No one, I hope, would dispute Debussy’s importance to twentieth-century music; nor would they disagree that his innovative approach to timbre and his use of techniques like chordal planing, modes, and other unusual scale types forms an important part of his legacy. On top of this, his music is staggeringly beautiful, urgent, and unforgettable.

Debussy was also a pianist, and, from contemporary accounts, an extremely gifted one. Any pianist can appreciate that the sound of his music is an important key to its effective performance. What is that sound, though? Debussy gave detailed descriptions within some of his scores. One of my favorites is “Sonore sans dureté” (“sonorous without harshness”), in prelude called “The Sunken Cathedral”—at fortissimo, how does a pianist actually play this? I’m still trying to figure it out; I think it would be the sonic equivalent of something like the soft, luminous colors in paintings by J. M. W. Turner.

Perhaps a good starting place is the actual choice of instrument. Debussy played a 1902 Bluethner, a little under 6′3″ in length—it’s still in existence and well maintained at the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde, Limousin. This fact suggests that a smaller piano might be better suited to Debussy’s music than the largest concert grand.

Through listening to this 2012 release, I’ve certainly become convinced that a smaller piano works superbly for Debussy’s music; Tobin uses a Steinway A (6′2″ long). It’s a light-sounding instrument, and the bass strings, in particular, have a less strident sound and a somewhat faster decay than with larger instruments. The topmost register is like lace, never harsh or metallic; the middle register has a lean sound as well.

Tobin recorded the program in Switzerland’s Kulturplatz Wetzikon using only a modest Zoom H4N recorder (costs about $200 on Amazon). Each piece was captured in a single take, and there was no further postproduction of any sort. This approach not only offers a testament to his superior technique and musical instincts, but also gives the performances a freer, spontaneous character that suits Debussy’s music very well.

One highlight for me is the revelatory performance of “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the Snow”) from the first book of Préludes). Like so many of Debussy’s works, the piece unfolds through the presentation of a single motivic idea placed in constantly shifting harmonic contexts; there’s also a frequent additional melodic layer in a higher register (occasionally transferred to the bass) and, about three-fourths of the way through, an unexpected new idea that sounds a bit like parallel organum. Tobin’s performance constantly varies the level of dynamics between the principal idea and the upper subordinate one, revealing subtle layers of motivic interaction between them. With timing and variations of tone color he also creates various connections for the different harmonizations, making them seem to follow a definite plan rather than to appear simply as a kaleidoscopic succession of chords. The piano’s characteristic timbre makes the enigmatic closing sonority (a D-minor chord at the outer extremes of the instrument) sound pale and completely forlorn.

The lighter tone of the piano also works very well for the evergreen “Fille aux cheveux de lin.” The lowest bass notes of the chords have a direct quality that never overpowers the subtle textures Tobin achieves. In the performance, too, I can savor (and envy) the soft, non-percussive quality throughout: it’s as if the musical lines emanate from the instrument almost as if they were bowed or perhaps willed to sing from within. The sonic approach is also nicely complemented by the interpretation, which makes its musical points simply but never diffidently. Rubato emphasizes unusual turns in the formal shape but gives the impression of a new idea considered just at that moment and nevertheless integrated naturally into the ongoing music.

Of course, Tobin is a consummate virtuoso—you have to be to tackle Debussy. And his virtuosity is effortless, as demonstrated in the limpid arpeggios, sudden expressive changes, and light, non-legato passages in “‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses.’” Here and elsewhere (as in “Ondine”), Tobin’s deft handling of so many different moods and figurations helps to reveal what is truly astonishing about Debussy’s conception of formal design. As with Stravinsky, the Frenchman’s music propels itself forward through a mosaic of different ideas, many of which are presented more than once in a sophisticated rotational design. (For a fascinating formal study of this principle, see this essay about “Nuages,” by James Hepokoski.)

There’s almost everything here that a single-CD collection of Debussy’s piano music should include. (In addition to the pieces mentioned already, the program contains “Clair de Lune,” “Le vent dans la plaine,” Brouillards, “Canope,” “‘Général Lavine’—eccentric,” “‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir,’” “Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon,” “Feux d’artifice,” “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P. P. M. P. C.,” and “Pagodes.”) I’d love to have heard “Reflets dans l’eau” on the same disc, but maybe Tobin will release another Debussy CD before too long. He should; whenever I teach Debussy’s piano music, I illustrate it with Tobin’s recordings—they’re that good.

The CD can be purchased through HBDirect and other vendors.

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