Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review of Debussy's Piano Roll Performances

July 24, 2007
Debussy’s Ghost Is Playing, So What Can a Critic Say?

Debussy left behind piano music in the form of black marks printed on a page. He also left behind a little of himself: piano rolls of Debussy playing Debussy. So elegantly conceived is the first part of this legacy that we sometimes wish the second part did not exist.

The scores imply a “this is it” permanence. The composer’s playing of them (now on a CD from the Pierian Recording Society) could just as well be the impulse of a moment. Copyright laws, in other words, are pretty clear about who owns what has been written. The rights to what it means are another matter.

James Joyce said that he took credit for all the interpretations by every “Ulysses” scholar in the world, whether any of them had occurred to him personally or not. The same idea coming from the opposite direction suggests that publishing something — laying it out before an audience — is an act of surrender, a loss of control that puts composers or writers at the mercy of interpreters. One can only appeal to good sense and good will.

This surrender of power is not the ghastly assault on artistic integrity that it seems. Letting go can do all sides a lot of good. In slow pieces like “Danseuses de Delphe,” Debussy the interpreter confirms the elegant classicism of his score-writing: simple movement without gimmicky flourishes, rhythm observed with a dignified precision.

When the tempos go up, so too do the pianist’s impetuosity levels. At one point in “La Cathédrale Engloutie,” Debussy nearly doubles the written tempo in relation to the note values around it. He throws himself at “La Danse de Puck” and “Minstrels.” “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” is a mad rush, perhaps intended as a comic portrayal of young pupils feverishly engaged in finger exercises. I don’t think the piece is a mad rush but rather a wistful, deftly accented and, above all, slightly slower bit of nostalgia. And if I can play it this way without contravening the written score, who says I can’t love the piece and declare its composer wrong?

In weaker moments, I even think I could get Debussy to like my way just fine, although I admit to feeling a little queasy every time I hear him play the piece for himself. The rolls were made in 1913, when the thought of performances frozen in time to be repeated verbatim and at will had scarcely occurred to anyone. The recording as snapshot was an idea that continued as far as the 1930s, when Artur Schnabel, recording Beethoven sonatas in Paris, declined to redo questionable takes. Dinu Lipatti’s recordings 10 years later were among the first to recognize that permanence without impregnability was not very permanent at all.

The Welte-Mignon mechanism used in the Debussy recordings represents an extreme sophistication of the player piano’s perforations on paper and pumping feet. Sensors measure the pressures exerted on individual notes. Other systems, the program notes for the Pierian CD say, added musical nuances after the rolls were made. Unlike Ampico and Duo-Art, Welte recorded them in real time. Listening, one looks over the shoulder for ghosts. One is at a séance, with the great man rapping on the table from a distance to make his presence known.

Kenneth Caswell of Austin, Tex., refurbishes these early performances and the machines to reproduce them. This CD has five of the Book 1 “Préludes,” the “Children’s Corner,” “La Plus Que Lente,” “La Soirée dans Grenade” and “D’un Cahier d’Esquisses,” all reperformed on a restored Feurich Welte piano in Mr. Caswell’s home. Also included are acoustical recordings of Debussy and the soprano Mary Garden in 1904 performing the “Ariettes Oubliées” and a snippet from “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Both sound significantly remote, the equivalent of ruins.

For the player piano pieces, Mr. Caswell says, he has adjusted piano and mechanism to the style and character of the piece at hand. But are the fast tempos here simply mechanical aberrations that misrepresent Debussy? Do we trust a reproductive process that has gone through so many middlemen and so much time? In any case, a listener not knowing that a machine was at work could easily be convinced that these performances come not from a ghost but from flesh and blood at the piano. Don’t underestimate the power of the mind to talk its owner into anything.

I’ll trust my old Durand editions, despite the misprints. Good Debussy players today begin as literal readers of these scores. Play the rhythms as if they were Mozart’s, and you are on the way to making them sound like Debussy. But written music can also tell us too much, the victim of overly possessive and micromanaging composers.

Mahler was one of those, but then he was a practicing conductor whose job it was to manage details. Paradoxically, Mahler the conductor continually rewrote the standard repertory to suit his needs and tastes. Interpreters make a mistake when they see written music as a kind of instruction book. (“Read this manual carefully, and put this wire there.”) Scores tells us what the listener can expect to hear. They are a kind of contract waiting to be signed.

So what part of Debussy’s “Gradus ad Parnassum” belongs to him and what part to me? A good question. Artistic property cases are starting to show up in the courts. I hope lawyers don’t get ahold of this one.

M&C NOTE: original post has two audio samples.

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