Monthly Archives: October 2011

Clair de Lune

A respite from the bustle of life…Debussy was able to do this in miniature, nowhere more so than Clair de Lune, the moonlight transpiring through the ivories. A little thing of beauty.

The sine qua non is Gieseking. I’d not be the first to point out the seeming cultural irony in having a German nearly universally recognized as the master of French impressionist piano — but it’s true. Beyond his Ravel, Gieseking’s Debussy manages to be subtle, beautiful, playful, and deep…all somehow simultaneously. My original Angel UK pressing (35067) delivers rich mono sound, and the somewhat slower pace not withstanding, the pressing takes up a good three times the actual vinyl track space of the other two recordings I discuss here. What later vintages would consider “audiophile” pressings were taken for granted in the early days of vinyl, with heavier pressings and deeper grooves and wider margins. It comes through in this recording, delicate, effervescent. Gieseking does not so much play Debussy as he transmits him, and his thoughts, brimming through the Clair de Lune. The mono sound adds to the echo effect which fits the mood of this little gem perfectly. It is a non-dramatic reading, in line with the German school shared very much by Kempff. The music speaks, less so than the interpreter.

Contrast with Ivan Moravec. I had occasion to hear him in rehearsal years ago, literally sneaking up behind him when he was

preparing before a concert at the University of Virginia, my alma mater. He was alternating between the third movement of the Pathetique and Clair de Lune. It was a wonderful contrast. I was stuck on his style from them on; and on his Clair de Lune, on the Connoisseur label (1967 recording, catalog 5752, with wonderful notes by the jazz historian Nat Henthoff). Moravec’s mix of poetry and drama is wonderfully illustrated. He fluctuates more than Gieseking, the moonlight glimmering more through passing clouds, telling more stories than Gieseking withholds. There is more drama in Moravec’s reading, more sadness in the flickers of light, more joy as well. Where Gieseking is sublime to the point of mystery, Moravec is personal and penetrating.

Lastly Zoltán Kocsis, benefitting from voluptuous modern sound; interpretively a kind of meld between Gieseking’s understated mysteriousness and Moravec’s persona. (Philips 412-118, 1983 recording.) Kocsis drives the piece, emphasising first notes in the phrases and drawing bright contrasts in the shimmers of the moonlight. Unlike Gieseking’s Zen Moonlight, Kocsis gives a sparkling portrait, touching in a manner of human consideration of nature, not just nature in its own light, the light of the moon. In this reading we have a decidedly more Romantic approach, more emotive than either Gieseking or Moravec. Completely convincing in its own way, and sonically a wholly different experience. A comparison that comes to mind is Pletnev’s Chopin: How a simple Polish poet can be played out as a Russian Romantic with a sound as big as the heart those great Russians wore (and wear) on their sleeves.

As a postscript, I put on my CD of Tortelier’s Ulster performance of Caplet’s orchestrated version. Popular with Stokowski and others, it is interesting to hear how the attempt is made to amplify the work — it is a translation of sorts, but ultimately unsuccessful in capturing the intimacy of this little piece of moonlight Debussy allows us to coax out of the piano.

This post is for a friend who I hope is seeing the Clair de Lune tonight.