Debussy: Piano Works (Esther Birringer)
Esther Birringer (piano) (Rubicon)
Images Books I & II; Ballade; Masques; Arabesque No. 1; Clair de lune; L’Isle Joyeuse; Nocturne
Esther Birringer (piano)
Rubicon RCD1097 64:44 mins
It’s unusual to be reviewing only a second disc by a pianist of 39, but the upside is that she has shed any youthful excrescences or ineptitudes there might have been and gives Debussy honest and thoughtful performances. Many of my differences over her playing are matters of taste, with especial reference to the composer’s puzzling verbal instructions. He asks for Hommage à Rameau to be played ‘in the style of a Sarabande, but without rigour’ – so how much rhythmic leeway does one have? Likewise L’Isle Joyeuse must be ‘very supple’ but at the same time ‘light and rhythmical’. This masterpiece is given perhaps her least successful performance in that the structure, built not only of rhythms but of dynamics and tempos, doesn’t quite work here, and a reading of Roy Howat’s seminal The Art of French Piano Music, above all pages 50 and 57, might be helpful.
Debussy’s dynamics aren’t always what you expect, but they are crucial in supporting the discourse: for instance, crescendos leading to sudden pianissimos are meant to bring us up short. Other facets Birringer might consider include the balance between primary and secondary material, which here is not always as clearly presented as it might be, while one of Debussy’s favourite ploys, the fade-out ending, as here in Clair de lune, Nocturne and Masques, needs to leave the listener struggling to hear the final sounds, reminding us that he once claimed to have discovered a new musical element: silence.