DEBUSSY / MESSIAEN / BOULEZ
Christina Petrowska Quilico, Piano
Navona Records NV 6358
Twentieth century piano music is an acquired taste. The dissonances of Bartok, Prokofiev and Shostakovich may be the limit of tolerance for those who luxuriate in the harmonic lushness of Rachmaninov or Ravel. The Second Viennese School likes of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern did conceive piano works of the atonal variety, but it was the French who led the way in crafting the unique soundscapes that defined the new epoch.
This excellent album traces the breaching of traditional tonality by way of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), further inroads made by his musical successor Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), to the outright atonality of Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). The chronological sequence of works performed progresses from 1912-13 with Debussy’s Second Book of Préludes to Boulez’s Third Sonata of 1955-57, as melody is deconstructed, tonalities dissipate and dissonances mount. All this makes for an enthralling aural journey.
Eight of twelve Debussy Préludes were selected, exploring piquant harmonies, complex rhythms and adventurous textures. It is interesting to note which Préludes have been omitted; namely the tunefully nostalgic Bruyeres, two involving jazzy rhythms (General Lavine and Pickwick) and Canope. The spareness and use of modal tunes in Canope actually looks ahead to Messiaen’s sound world, and would have made for the perfect transition. However, it is the bristling and near-atonal Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) that precedes seven of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus).
|Debussy, Messiaen & Boulez|
Messiaen’s twenty Regards (1944) were conceived with sacred and spiritual inspirations in mind, and like Romanesque cathedrals, are austere, astringent and awe-inducing at the same time. His two most popular Regards (Kiss of the Infant Jesus and Spirit of Joy) are not included, but shorter ones that make the most impact. These are not played in published sequence but still make logical sense on listening. Regard XVI (Gaze of the Prophets, Shepherds and Wise Men) begins with heavy chords but works through several ostinato figures before arriving at a sequence that strongly resembles the familiar Twilight Zone theme on television. That its composer Marius Constant was a student of Messiaen’s is too much of a coincidence.
The Messiaen group closes with an unusually aggressive portrait of Christmas, Noël, which ushers in Boulez’s First Sonata (1946), at ten minutes the shortest of his three piano sonatas. By this time, the ears have undergone the gradual process of acclimatisation, such that Boulez’s freely atonal and seemingly random procession of notes becomes less of an arduous listening challenge. Whether one chooses to continue listening and include Trope, the second movement of the Third Sonata, is a matter of taste and test of one’s curiosity.
Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico is a compelling artist, one who makes light of the myriad technical challenges and gets to the heart of the music. This primer of twentieth century French piano music gets better with each repeated listen.