Paul Badura-Skoda joue/plays/spielt Claude Debussy

Claude Derbussy
Estampes, L'île Joyeuse 
Suite Bergamasque, 3 Préludes

Paul Badura-Skoda
Piano Bösendorfer Impérial 1923
"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°85 
Sélectionné par "La Discothèque Idéale" de Flammarion/Compact



Where are you from? Where were you born? Oh! Oh! Far from here... far... far... As of the first scene of Pelléas et Mélisande, one can guess what drew Debussy to Maeterlinck's text. All of Debussy's music, like Mélisande, can be heard to sing "like a bird from distant lands". Must we evoke the words of Vladimir Jankélévitch : "The distant is a factor, which, to a lesser or greater extent, is common to all music : that of Albeniz, like that of Debussy, or of Fauré, which departs from the prosaic and the everyday, rendering it ambiguous and dreamlike. All things musical are to a certain degree absent, evasive and nocturnal; through the magic of music, that which is present recedes even further, ever beyond" (1). Indeed, "the distant and the absent" are the dominant themes of the Suite bergamasque, the Estampes and the Three Preludes of the First Book, entitled La Cathédrale engloutie, La Fille aux cheveux de lin, Des pas sur la neige.

The Suite bergamasque, begun towards 1890 and reworked in 1904 and 1905, draws its inspiration both from Verlaine and the French harpsichord school. In the original score, the Clair de Lune was replaced by a Promenade sentimentale, and the Passepied by a Pavane. Then again, the Passepied is much less lively than the older dance of this name, and the Clair de lune, with its nostalgic beginnings, its tenderly lyrical middle section and its evasive conclusion, does not simply evoke a landscape, but echoes the poem by Verlaine : "They don't seem to believe in their happiness..."
We are thus transported to the unreal world of Watteau, to the ancient Suite and to modal language : what better way to illustrate the notion of "distance" in space and time, than with this Suite bergamasque.

The Estampes (1903), whose title is a reminder of Debussy's admiration for the art of Hiroshima, Utamaro and Hokusai, are a series of imaginary voyages. In Pagodas, which takes us to  Indonesia, Debussy recreates his impressions of the 1889 International Exhibition. A letter to Pierre Louÿs, dated January 22, 1895, describes these unforgettable impressions : "Do you remember the Javanese music which contained all possible nuances we could no longer name, where the tonic and the dominant where nothing more than vain phantoms..." The Soirée dans Grenade, second part of the Estampes, was dreamed by the musician during July 1903, in Bichain, Yonne; there, Debussy breathed the perfumes of a magically recreated Spain, haunting him from beyond the hills of Burgundy. The Jardins sous la pluie, situated by certain authors in Normandy and by others in Paris, would seem to be rather the transposition of a Japanese print, where the rain serves as a pretext for graphic play just as, for Debussy, it is the pretext for pianistic virtuoso. But in the latter case, the merit of the music lies in its recreation of the freshness of the sensation; the quotation from "Nous n'irons plus au bois" is a part of this playful spirit, as in the Japanese print, emerging like a familiar detail which captures – or diverts – one's attention.

L'Isle Joyeuse (1904), one of Debussy's rare unambiguously joyful works, evokes love's flight to a very real island (Jersey, where Emma Bardac and Claude Debussy went to hide their new love); nonetheless, this reality is transfigured by a fairytale climate, an atmosphere of festivity and apotheosis.

La Fille aux cheveux de lin (January 15-16, 1910), the eighth prelude of the First Book, conjures up the naive image of a maiden from old times, in distant Scotland. The tenth prelude, La Cathédrale engloutie (undated) alludes to the Breton legend of the town of Ys. But this architecture, less a presence than an absence, a vision glimpsed through  the mist, resembles a text by Mallarmé evoking the town of Bruges, where the stones appear as the mist is dispelled (2). Similarly, the sixth prelude, Des pas sur la neige (december 27, 1909), where the painful absence of the loved one is signified by traces, can also be situated in the context of the Mallarmé's aesthetics, describing a hollow within an interior space. Rather than outlining with sharply defined contours, the musician seeks to suggest such a form.

Jean Roy

(1) Vladimir Jankélévitch : La Présence Lointaine, Paris, Le Seuil, 1983.
(2) Stéphane Mallarmé : Remémoration d'amis belges, Poésies.

Paul Badura-Skoda


Originally he wanted to become an engineer but luckily he changed his mind. Nowadays, he is applauded in all the world's great concert halls, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. He makes extensive concert tours on all continents, plays with leading orchestras and can be found in the recording studios of the celebrated record companies. In either words, Paul Badura-Skoda is one of the most important pianists of our time.

One thing has remained with him from his early professional interests, the desire to "look behind the scenes", to understand the functioning and the impact of great musical works and, in playing them, to make the perception accessible to others. In this critical appraisal first editions and autographs are compared, the text deviations investigated and historical instruments are used. Not only does he play music, he also reflects on it, producing numerous cadenzas to Mozart concerti and style-sensitive completions of unfinished works by Mozart and Schubert. The musical personality of Badura-Skoda is characterized by complete immersion in music, a passionate search for the essential and a sense of artistic responsibility, but not in a technical or academical sense. "Paul Badura-Skoda makes us feel something which is rare in a professional musician, that he loves music with every part of his being", a critic once said.

Paul Badura-Skoda was born in Vienna in 1927. His unusual musical talent very soon became to the fore and was appropriately encouraged. Unforgettable concert performances by Edwin Fischer, Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler during the war strengthened Badura-Skoda's intention to become a musician. The young artist was not only impressed by the remarkable interpretations he heard but more so by the evidence of the ethical power of music they provided, an aspect that he still emphasizes today.

In 1945 Badura-Skoda entered the Vienna Conservatory. Only two years later he attracted attention when he won the first prize of the Austrian Music Competition. A scholarship for Edwin Fischer's master classes in Lucerne was the prize, and also the starting point of the maestro's friendship, which laid the foundation for Badura-Skoda's artistic future. A few years later the young pianist became Fischer's assistant, and after Fischer's death, he continued the tradition of his master classes in Vienna, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Siena. Even today, Badura-Skoda still keeps close contact with young artists. Again and again he devotes precious time and enthusiasm to the strenuous office of jury member in important piano contests and advises young artists. No-one who has heard him speak about music with warmth and perception in his soft Viennese voice, can ever forget it.

In 1949 Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan became aware of Badura-Skoda's outstanding talent. They invited him to play concerts, and practically overnight the young Viennese pianist became a world-famous artist. He made a spectacular debut at the Salzburg Festival; and at his first concert in New York, in 1953, the hall was quickly sold out, something that hardly anyone before him had experienced. This sensational success was repeated a few years later at his debut in Tokyo. Record companies were not far behind, for years he was the pianist who had the largest number of long-playing records on the market.

Since then, Badura-Skoda has become a regular and celebrated guest at the most important music festivals. The conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Joseph Krips, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Hermann Scherchen, Artur Rodzinsky, Lorin Maazel, Georg Szell, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Georg Solti and the violinist David Oistrakh have been among his famous partners. He has recorded a vast repertoire, more than two hundred long-playing records and dozens of compact discs appeared, including complete cycles of the piano sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Badura-Skoda does not limit himself to play the works of the classical Viennese composers, his repertory ranges from baroque to modern music. Indeed, Badura-Skoda does not agree with narrow specialization. He conducts, composes, works in musicological areas, writes books on music and collects. Besides a huge archive of autograph microfilm copies and first editions, he is the proud owner of an extensive collection of historical keyboard instruments. It is a unique experience to be shown around this treasury by the owner himself.

1976 the Austrian State honoured Paul Badura-Skoda by the "Österreichische Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst", 1978 Badura-Skoda received the "Bösendorfer-Ring" which was given only to Wilhelm Backhaus before, 1988 he received the Gold Medal of the City of Vienna, 1993 the artist was nominated "Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur" and 1997 "Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres". At the occasion of his 80th birthday Paul Badura-Skoda was honoured by the Austrian Government receiving the Große Silberne Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich and by the City of Vienna he received the Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um das Land Wien. The University of Mannheim in Germany honoured him by the title Doctor Honoris Causa.

Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand


It is a nice coincidence that my first acquaintance with this outstanding concert grand took place in a flat at Bösendorferstraße 9, in Vienna. Hermann May, an engineer, had a private recording studio in his flat where I recorded some works to offer them as a Christmas gift to my mother. I was 14 years and I had never played on a concert grand before. The recording came out amazingly well. Hermann May, who had first looked at me quite sceptically, was very pleased with my playing. Soon after that I made more recordings and with the years we became friends, a friendship which lasted until his death. Hermann May was one of the first producers who made live recordings of concerts and opera performances with the poor means of that time. After the war he modernized his equipment and established a sound archive which soon became world famous. Many great musicians came to him such as Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Backhaus and Friedrich Gulda.

Only years after that first meeting, when I had already played in several continents, I became aware that the instrument was one of the most beautiful pianos of our time. I tried to buy it from him for my collection of pianos, but to no avail. Though Hermann lived in quite modest conditions, he did not want to give the instrument away during his lifetime. However, by a clause in his testament I was given the possibility to acquire this piano after his death.

It is one of the earliest Imperial concert grand with eight octaves, from bottom C to C5 and has the production number 23 274. Investigations at the Bösendorfer archive revealed that it had been completed in 1923 and sold for 5 Million Crowns. From the still existing attached sheet one can deduct that the work for this grand had already started in 1916. The assembling was carried out in 1918, the finishing in 1922 and the final control in November 1923. A particular specification  determined that the bass strings Röslana strings, should be coated with iron wire. This might be a reason for the exceptionally sonorous, warm bass sound of this instrument. A moving remark can be found on the still existing order form : "Please carry out the finishing with utmost care".

I don't think that it would be possible nowadays to build an instrument with similar care and in a production process of seven years. One is reminded of the individual way the great violins in Cremona were handmade. As with violins the actual production had been preceded by yearlong process of drying carefully selected spruce for the soundboard. Of particular merit are the sensitive action and the quality of the feltcovered hammers. That felt, prepared by hand, is somewhat softer and more elastic than of that modern hammers. As a result these hammers produce less volume but more singing quality than the modern ones. Needless to say this delicate production of sound is not apt for every style of music. Yet it is ideally suited for the demi-teintes of Debussy's music and the works of some of his contemporaries as the late Brahms, Fauré, Ravel, Granados, Albeniz, Scriabine. Not loudness but beauty of sound was the ideal of composers and piano makers alike.


La Cathédrale engloutie (prélude 10 Livre 1)
Soirée dans Grenade 
Jardin sous la pluie
La Fille aux cheveux de lin (prélude 8 Livre 1) 

L’Isle Joyeuse 

Des pas sur la neige (prélude 6 Livre 1)

Suite bergamasque 
Clair de lune 


"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°85 
Selected by "La Discothèque Idéale" de Flammarion/Compact
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