Debussy, Bartók, Stawinsky, Ravel - Pianos du vingtième siècle

Pianos of the 20th century
Claude Debussy
En Blanc et Noir
Béla Bartók
Seven pieces from Mikrokosmos
Igor Strawinsky
Concerto per due pianoforti soli
Maurice Ravel
Ma Mère l’Oye

Jean-François Heisser & Georges Pludermacher
pianos Steinway

"Diapason d'Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°337


Claude Debussy

En Blanc et Noir (1915)

Claude Debussy composed this suite of three pieces in 1915. The atmosphere of the time, and his own mood during that wartime year, made him more inclined towards black rather than white. The original title was "Caprices en Blanc et Noir", in memory of Goya, particularly where the tragic tone of the second piece was concerned. But Debussy's sense of balance, and his tact, led him to cross out the word "Caprices" and to seek refuge in a purely instrumental allusion. The title as it now stands apparently refers to the two colours of the piano keyboard.
To use an instrument as a source of inspiration was to conform to the aesthetic tendency of the time. Strawinsky himself had stated that the Petrouchka motif had been determined by the location of the keys on the piano. Composer Jean Barraqué wrote, however, that, "the composition of this page of music is in a way the indirect consequence of the revision of Chopin's works Debussy was carrying out for the French edition published by Durand. This project had made Debussy give serious thought to pianistic technique."
For Debussy, the piano was both an instrument of pleasure and study. His reflections on piano technique occurred during a period of great musical fertility for him. Depressed by the events of the war, and by the progress of the disease that was eventually to prove fatal to him, Debussy sought refuge at a country estate on the English Channel coast. Although he spent only three months there, he put the finishing touches to his Douze Etudes (a seminal work for subsequent piano composition), the present Suite, and two of his three final sonatas. Critics have detected in Debussy's final period of creativity a penchant for more traditional forms, but this composer's neo-classicism was always indirect. His chosen historical models are those that have proved their ability to withstand the test of time, and he does not use them merely as "tickets of credibility". The contemporary political context, and the composer's own patriotism, may have influenced him to lighten the structure of the suite and give it a limpidity that is seen, correctly, as specifically French in nature. The result was "one of the last and freest of Debussy's masterpieces", in the words of Harry Halbreich, who concluded, "there is nothing in the repertory for two pianos as accomplished as this." Accomplished, certainly. And yet the form itself is no less spontaneous than usual. This was Debussy's major formal discovery, that after Jeux (1913) became a rule with him. This piece for orchestra "marks the birth of a musical form that develops from one moment to the next, and that therefore implies a mode of listening that also operates from one moment to the next", These words of Pierre Boulez could also perfectly be applied to the suite En Blanc et Noir.

The first piece, Avec emportement, is dedicated to the conductor Serghei A. Kussewitsky. It is inscribed with the following lines from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette : "Those who dare not join the dance... dare not admit it." Some commentators have seen in this quotation an allusion to Debussy's bitterness at not being able to participate in the battles of the Great War.
The piano parts are allotted spatially, rather than polyphonically (as in Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion). The motifs are frequently based on fourths, an interval that was widely popular in the music of the first half of 20th century. In this extremely skilful, economical composition, each beat assumes an importance of its own. The tonal spatialization provides the sensation of Jeux (interplay).
The form of the piece is also highly subtle. The pace accelerates towards the end of the first piece. What originally may have appeared improvised to the listener, is now suddenly revealed as a highly structured form, with an unexpected finis coronat opus. As in Sonate pour violoncelle et piano composed during the same period, the work demonstrates a process of streamlining taking place as we listen. The work's pre-history is woven directly into it.

Debussy said of the second piece that it was "the most original of the three", It is dedicated "to Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, killed by the enemy on 3 March 1915". The dedication is highlighted by lines quoted from François Villon (Ballade contre les ennemis de la France) : "Oh Prince of Darkness, bear away the slaves of evil into the forest of sightlessness, where tranquility and hope are no more, for none should virtue yet enjoy, who stand as enemies to France."
The tone of the piece is complex, containing astute superimpositions. First come the harmonies Debussy experimented with at least as far back as La Cathédrale engloutie, but here appearing in a heightened more epic form. Then a caricature like image of Luther's chorale Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott. And in the composer's words, "towards the end, a small carillon rings out like an anticipatory Marseillaise..." Compared with other music of the time, this collage was extremely innovative. It reflected the influence of cubist painting, but carried out with eloquent theatricality. This technically audacious, consummately executed "tombeau" will always stand, in our view, as one of Debussy's most stunning achievements.

The third piece contrasts sharply with the one before. Dedicated to Strawinsky, that champion of the purity and autonomy of language as expression, it moves back and forth within the purest French tradition between counter point and harmony, melodic expression and tone colour, the blending and then separation of the protagonists. Although the piece contains a few forays into polytonality, its neo-classicism is more obvious.

Béla Bartók

Seven pieces from Mikrokosmos (1926-1939)
for two pianos, four hands arranged by the composer

Béla Bartók wrote the six notebooks for the Mikrokosmos cycle between 1926 and 1939. He worked on them in his spare time, between the larger works, and also used them to test himself, and to experiment with new musical devices. This vast undertaking is actually only partially a method for teaching; it is also in large measure a laboratory for experiments in composition, a "test bed" in which Bartók deployed his entire polyphonic technique, his ideas on modality, his unique compositional principles. Because of this, Mikrokosmos became, in addition to a progressive method for teaching piano, a sort of practical composition guide containing, and in its way explaining, the composer's inexhaustible musical imagination and his consummate mastery of the art of musical composition.

Bartók was keenly interested in the teaching of music, and this interest is actually one of the Hungarian composers' most important characteristics. In this respect, we might recall that Zoltán Kodály was the guiding spirit behind an original and effective method of teaching music. As for Bartók, he had already written a cycle (For children) in 1908, a maiden effort at a method for teaching the piano. After finishing Mikrokosmos, the composer realized that no pianist's training can be considered complete if he has not survived the difficult ordeal of playing four-handed music with another pianist. Meanwhile, his increasingly frequent public appearances with his wife, pianist Ditta Pasztory, also incited him to go back to seven pieces from Mikrokosmos and re-write them for two pianos.

Bartók may have done the adaptation in 1939, since in 1940 he was already playing a selection of four pieces with his wife. The entire cycle was published posthumously in 1947 by Boosey and Hawkes. In many cases the musical differences, compared with the original Mikrokosmos are insignificant, as in pieces n°1, "Bulgarian rhythm" (113 in Mikrokosmos), n°5, "New hungarian folk song" (127) and n°6, "Chromatic invention" (145). In other instances, however, we are dealing with an entirely new composition, a completely new arrangement of the musical material, and an extended development of the original themes, as with pieces n°2, "Chord and trill study" (69) and n°7, "Ostinato" (146). Musicologist Janos Karpati rightly notes the fact that the seven pieces were carefully selected and developed so as to form a coherent cycle, with its own symmetry and meticulous development of the inner expressive tension.

In Bartók's creative life, the end of the Thirties marked the consummation of his desire to reconcile traditional composition theory with the contemporary vocabulary. Although we cannot call Bartók a neo-classical composer, he did, nevertheless, put new life into the forms of the past through his amazing power to find innovative solutions to old problems (compare, the fugue in "Music for strings, percussion and celesta", in which the density of the voices results in a kind of mobile "cluster" anticipating the work of Ligeti). Bartók brings his experiments full circle, from a respect for the past, to a deviation from it, and then to a final sense of fulfilment.

Within forms that are of necessity miniature, like those of the Mikrokosmos, this combination of stylistic daring and solid craftsmanship is no less in evidence. Modes obtained by a geometrization of sonic space (occurring in the celebrated gold section) are combined with canons and other traditional devices, which, however, are consistently given a modern twist. A favourite choice of the composer's is a mock-mechanical device in a form of deceptive simplicity (the accelerando of n°6, "Chromatic invention"). Chiaroscuro effects are produced in "Bulgarian rhythm" (n°I) through use of a shifting modality. There are also some striking melodic progressions (n°7, "Ostinato", in which the melody continually returns to apparently unrelated notes), that surprise the listener because of the skill with which the composer manipulates (and eludes) our expectations. Here, Bartók's genius is apparent in the way he hides his strategy behind an apparent simplicity. He thus is able to draw us unwittingly into an interplay of the absurd and the childish that is more complicated underneath than it appears on the surface.

Igor Strawinsky

Concerto per due pianoforti soli (1935)

The concerto for two solo pianos is one of the most typical works of Strawinsky's French, or neo-classical period. The composer began this work in 1931, writing the first movement non-stop. He stopped, however, in order to concentrate on Perséphone. He returned to the Concerto in 1935, and the finished work was dated 1 September 1935. It was performed in public shortly thereafter. The score (Schott) carries the following note : "This Concerto was performed by me and my son, Sviatoslav Soulima Strawinsky, for the first time at the Université des Annales, Paris, in the Salle Gaveau, on 13/21 November 1935." As this demonstrates, Strawinsky wanted to inscribe the date also as it would have appeared on the old calendar still used by the Russian Orthodox Church. "The Concerto was designed as a concert piece for touring in towns with no orchestra" (Dialogue with Robert Craft). It is possible Soulima was responsible for giving his father the idea for It. In any case, this is a concerto without an orchestra : the two pianos take turns playing the role of soloist and accompaniment. The composer had, in fact, thought about orchestrating the work.
This composition is both orthodox and extremely defiant, simultaneously respectful of tradition and iconoclastic. At its première, it was received somewhat coolly. It was judged to be "admirable technically, but lacking in the slightest trace of inner feeling." Prokofiev found it "difficult to follow, piles of notes pushing each other around." He did concede, however, that the piece was "interesting".
"The most remarkable aspect of the entire work is the sense of form; one thinks of Beethoven's last sonatas, with their elisions and their phrases that seem suspended in mid-air, or placed between brackets, their thread broken, knotted together again, but never lost," wrote André Schaeffner, one of the first and most authoritative commentators on Strawinsky's work. Roman Vlad adds : "The Concerto is one of Strawinsky's most impressive works, not only because of its monumental architectural conception and the sumptuousness of its music, but also because of its intrinsic expressiveness, which attains to a solemn grandeur in the conclusion of the fugue".

The Concerto for two pianos contains four movements :
I. First movement (Con moto), II. Notturno, III. Quattro variazioni, IV. Preludio e fuga.

The first movement resembles the allegro in a sonata. The vigorous theme is sustained and ornamented by extended scales played on both keyboards, whose function is both thematic and galvanizing. The effect is not one of stereophony, as with Bartók or Debussy, but of genuine counterpoint held in check by a rational dialectic. As always with Strawinsky, the highly ingenious rhythm remains fairly simple. The Russian composer was a master of basic, poignant rhythm, and knew the secret of combining rhythm and pitch so that the rhythm never becomes dull.

"The second movement, Notturno, should not be played in the style of Field or Chopin, but in the style of the 18th century cassation, i.e., like - after-dinner - music," according to Strawinsky. The scales of the allegro are still there but although the tempo is slower, the scales are faster, virtually transformed into appogiaturas intended to mark the beat (Strawinsky often had recourse to this procedure in his early orchestral works, notably Le Sacre du printemps). This transformation leads to the glissandos of the second variation in the following movement.

The third and fourth movements form a single whole. The fugue theme also serves as the theme for the variations. Strawinsky had initially intended to place the fugue first and the variations next. But he reversed the two sections. The result is to give us variations that develop towards the theme, instead of away from it. This unaccustomed progression is not new, however, and is - in part - what happens at the beginning of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony finale. The example from Beethoven is also evident in the inverted repeat of the fugue, exactly as in the Opus 110 Sonata. Strawinsky himself admits to having drawn from Beethoven's variations, his fugues, and from variations by Brahms. In defiance of his models, and of an extremely strict formal structure, however, Strawinsky maintained the inviolability of his own pleasure in musicmaking. For this composer, paradoxically, neo-classicism served merely as a means for projecting himself into the foreground, and there exercising total creative liberty.

Maurice Ravel

Ma Mère l’Oye (1908)

Although the fame of Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye came mainly in response to the sumptuous orchestral version he composed several years after the original, it was first written in 1908 as a four·hand piano piece. It was composed for, and dedicated to two children - Mimie and Jean Godebski - aged six and ten, respectively. The five pieces are "childish", to use Ravel's own word, insofar as they evoke the world of the child to which Ravel remained sensitive throughout his life. Although "childish", the suite is far from infantile, and its composition brought with it enduring changes in Ravel's style. "My attempt to evoke the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and streamline my methods", admitted the composer. Systematically marked with a "desire to play tricks, tell stories, and keep moving" (Vladimir Jankélévitch), the miniature pieces making up the Ma Mere l'Oye are no less typical of the composer who "pushed the limits of the impossible back as far as they would go" (Jankélévitch again).

The world of childhood is summoned in these pieces with the assistance of several sources, among which Charles Perrault's fairy tales are predominant to the point of giving a title to the entire cycle. Perrault's tales provide the point of departure for the two initial pieces. Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant serves as an introduction, and doesn't really tell a story. In it Ravel has reduced his musical devices to their simplest form in order to highlight the melody's archaic modal cast. "Once upon a time" is a smooth, suggestive theme which develops with extraordinary natural delicacy. In the second piece, we find stronger narrative elements. The sinuous development of the theme represents the path followed by Petit Poucet as he traces the breadcrumbs he has left on the ground. When he loses his way, because the birds have eaten up the crumbs, the musical form itself is threatened with disorder, or rather by a suggestion of disorder, and then balance is elegantly restored once more. For Ravel, disorder was the worst possible threat, but he could suggest it if he needed to for dramatic purposes.

Based on Madame d'Aulnoy's Serpentin Vert, Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes, is a picture painted in vivid and exotic colours (and here we already see the beginning, with Debussy, Ravel and later, Messiaen, of the continuous attraction exerted by the Orient on French composers) produced mainly through the use of pentatonic modes and a splendid range of voices. In fact, when we hear this piece in the piano version, we already sense the orchestra, and when we hear the orchestral version, we sense the limpid logic of the piano, and the effectiveness and skill of the pianistic technique.

In Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête, the dialogue of Madame Leprince de Beaumont's story is suggested by the piece's thematic contrasts and, especially by its shifts in register. This is a dialogue between two musical characters marvellously evoked by the autonomy of the two instruments. Ravel's art is once again revealed in the virtuosity with which he transforms the theme when the "Bête" regains his human face.

The fifth piece, Le jardin féerique, has no exact literary source. It is an amazing blend of the logical and the unpredictable and is alleged by Manuel de Falla to be remains of a piece entitled Saint-François d'Assise that was left unfinished by the composer.
Although he remained open to all kinds of influences, including Bartok (and even Schönberg), and both Spanish and Oriental music, Ravel nonetheless consistently maintained his own personality and his vocation as a European composer in the age of the League of Nations. As Marcel Marnat underscores, in his major monograph, "In the company of Valery, Braque, Elie Faure, and a few others, Maurice Ravel thus represents one culminating point of an Europe that was rational and yet down-to-earth, alluring but constructive, happy to put on a smile, but always a knowing smile".

Costin Cazaban

Jean-François Heisser


Jean-François Heisser is one of the most versatile French performers of his generation. To the major composer of the classical and romantic repertory, he has added a considerable number of 20th century names, both already accepted or still contentious. Among them : De Falla, Albeniz, Granados, Fauré (the chamber music), d’Indy (the sonata), Dukas (the complete piano works), Reger, Bartók, Schönberg, Strawinsky; and major solo or concert works by the significant composers of the second half of the 20th century such as Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Berio, Zimmerman, Crumb, Messian; plus works by French composers who are personal favorites of his, such as André Boucourechliev, Gérard Masson and Gilbert Amy.

Jean-François Heisser was born in 1950 and studied at the French National Conservatory of Music under (among others) Vlado Perlemuter, Jean-François Heisser left the Conservatory with six First Prizes : piano, chamber music, composition... In 1984 he returned there to teach. He has been a regular guest artist at numerous music festivals worldwide. In France (Aix-en-Provence, La Roque d’Anthéron, Lille), in Switzerland (Montreux-Vevey), in Spain, Sweden, Germany and South America.

He has played with the Moscow Philharmonic, the Bucarest Philharmonic, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, the Radio Orchestras of RAI-Turin, Sofia and Helsinki, the Orchestre de Paris, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Mai Florentin Orchestra under the batons of Zubin Mehta, Dimitri Kitaïenko, Emmanuel Krivine, David Shallon, Marek Janowski, Antonio Ros-Marba, Myung-Whun-Chung, Leif Sergerstam, Michael Tilson-Thomas etc. Jean-François Heisser has been active in the field of chamber music, playing with Sandor Vegh, Rita Streich, Augustin Dumay, Gérard Poulet, Pierre Amoyal, Misha Maisky, Georges Pludermacher, Régis Pasqier, Elizabeth Balmas, Roland Pidoux, Gérard Caussé, Michel Portal, Dimitri Sitkovetski and more.

Georges Pludermacher

Slender, self-effacing, short-sighted, absent-minded : to look at, Georges Pludermacher is the elusive changeling of French piano virtuosos; but when he sits down to play, he becomes a two-fisted Hercules of prodigal versatility. Pludermacher not only brings extraordinary powers of analysis and memory to the contemporary repertoire, he can also mobilize them for the execution of "impossible" works such as a Liszt Sonata, Beethoven's "Variations Diabelli", or Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's "Symphonie Héroïque" which he has recorded, along with Debussy's "Etudes".
Both virtuoso and teacher, Georges Pludermacher was born in Guéret on 26 July 1944. He was the 1979 Geza Anda Prize laureate (having been a summer school pupil of Anda's), and was a prize winner in Lisbon in 1968 and Leeds in 1969. A pupil of Jacques Février and Lucette Descaves, Pludermacher is a fine colourist and technician : his repertoire spans the history of music from Mozart to Boulez. He premiered Boucourechliev's "Archipel I" and Xenakis's "Synaphai", has performed as soloist with "Domaine Musical" and "Musique Vivante", and with the Paris Opera. He holds a teaching position at the CNSM Paris, and is an established chamber player... in every way, Georges Pludermacher is the total performer. - Costin Cazaban

Steinway Concert Grand



Claude Debussy

En Blanc et Noir (1915)

Avec emportement - à mon ami A. Kussewitsky
Lent. Sombre - au Lieutenant J. Charlot
Scherzando - à mon ami I. Strawinsky

Igor Strawinsky

Concerto per due pianoforte soli (1935)

Premier mouvement (I)
Notturno (II)
Quattro variazioni (III)
Preludio e Fuga (IV)

Béla Bartók

7 pieces from "Mikrokosmos" (1926-1939)

Bulgarian rhythm
Chord and trill study
Perpetuum mobile
Short canon and its inversion
New hungarian folk song
Chromatic invention

Maurice Ravel

Ma Mère l’Oye (1908)

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant
Petit Poucet
Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes
Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête
Le jardin féerique


"Diapason d'Orde Diapason-Harmonie n°337 :

Voici un disque dont on se dit aussitôt : comment a-t-on pu s'en passer jusqu'ici? Car il s'agit non seulement d'interprétations "au sommet", mais aussi d'un programme remarquablement bien centré sur la première moitié du siècle, avec quatre œuvres représentatives de ce qu'on pourrait appeler la "non-école de Vienne" sans pour autant leur coller l'étiquette de "néo-classique", hâtive et trois fois sur quatre inexacte.
En blanc et noir joue sur le discontinu, le refus du développement, le rapprochement inattendu, l'irruption. La seconde pièce est le cœur de l'œuvre, nocturne et tragique; mais elle préserve la distance et la pudeur debussystes. C'est là que l'on comprend que le piano de Debussy n'est pas le lieu du "flou" ni de "l'effleuré", mais celui des lumières, des couleurs et des ombres - entre blanc et noir...
Les sept Mikrokosmos de Bartók passent, sous les doigts de Heisser et Pludermacher, en un clin d'œil. Transcrits par le compositeur pour lui-même et son épouse (tous deux, au reste, pianistes discutables), ils résonnent ici comme autant de visions d'un univers rythmique prodigieux.
Avec le Strawinsky du Concerto pour deux pianos "soli" (composé pour l'auteur lui-même et son fils) on respire un air pétillant. Ce n'est certes pas une œuvre "prrrrofonde" (dirait Proust), mais elle nous change des "miasmes austro-boches" (dirait Debussy). Rappelons que Strawinsky avait horreur du gras, à table comme en musique. Aussi le jeu de nos pianistes se fait-il décapant...
Et ils rentrent leurs griffes pour jouer Ma Mère l'Oye. "Laideronnette" devient alors une beauté, et la Bête s'avère tout aussi charmante que la Belle. Heisser et Pludermacher seraient donc capables aussi de tendresse! - André Boucourechliev
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