French On First – The Boston Musical Intelligencer

The first of three French “First Monday” events at the New England Conservatory inked for this fall was informal, judging by general admission ($0.00) and the almost total lack of printed programs —  they ran out early. The sizeable audience filling the downstairs and some of the balcony gave a collective hushed nod of respect as Laurence Lesser, who curates the events, spoke from the stage and mentioned that the world premiere of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp had taken place at this very location, in 1916 as an event of the Longy Club. In the second performance, a month later in Paris, Darius Milhaud, then 24 years old, played the viola.

The French Baroque began with with a Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont de Paris by Marin Marais (1656-1728). Marais himself, judging from the string-jumping athletics of the gamba player, Adrienne Hyde, must have been a formidable virtuoso. The Sonnerie is really a carillon, a three-note ostinato D-F-E forging endlessly, and only a few times shifting in key. Compare the three notes in the Carillon movement in Bizet’s l’Arlésienne; or the comically famous Fandango for harpsichord by Antonio Soler. Sarah Darling, violin, and Peter Sykes, harpsichord, completed the trio with unflagging energy.

François Couperin’s the Apothéose de Lully added Andrea LeBlanc on a wooden-and-ivory transverse flute to the foregoing ensemble. Couperin composed this as a belated tribute to Jean-Baptiste Lully (died 1687), court composer to Louis XIV who had also been Marais’s teacher. Its 12 short movements carry a descriptive program (e.g. no. 4: “The Descent of Apollo who comes to offer his violin to Lully and a place on Parnassus”). The evening’s handout had apparently copied the entire Apothéose listing, titles and all, from the Wikipedia article, including typos (“Correli”). One can’t fault the grace and refinement of this very remote-in-time music—exquisite in all respects.

Debussy’s three completed sonatas of a projected series of Six Sonates pour divers instruments, took the stage after intermission. He composed two of these, along with his 12 Études for piano and the suite for two pianos called En blanc et noir, during an astounding burst of creativity in just five months, June-October 1915, when he was desperately ill with cancer and emotionally depressed by the Great War. His (first-composed) Cello Sonata bests every other example in the repertoire…even Beethoven’s. Lesser’s decades-long immersion in the sonata informed both the love and concentration that marked his performance. Motti Fang-Bentov, a Chinese-Israeli pianist now going for a graduate diploma at NEC partnered him with masterly blend. The Prologue that forms the first movement is like a Bach prelude, with a turn ornament (in the score it looks like a backward S turned 90 degrees) forming the basic motive in the piano summoned by the opening chord. The second movement, Sérénade, makes the cello into a commedia dell’arte guitar, with multiple-stop pizzicato in recitative fashion; the third movement follows immediately, transferring the strummed-guitar style to the piano, while the cello soars.

Violist Tessa Lark heightened the party atmosphere when she came on stage in a full body suit with sash emblazoned with a floral pattern that could have been designed by Martin Johnson Heade. Her take on the Debussy Violin Sonata— bold, penetrating, soulful, heroic and ecstatic all at once— was the best I’ve ever heard. Fang-Bentov totally matched her at the piano, with a balancing understanding of the sound that made me think of what Debussy himself must have sounded like. We all sighed at such loving measures as these:

This sonata was Debussy’s last work, completed in 1916 at the height of his compositional powers, and he accompanied Gaston Poulet at the premiere in May 1917, his last public performance, ten months before his death at age 55. (Debussy’s skill and sensitivity as a pianist earned renown throughout his life, beginning with his conservatory-student days.

Some critics have pointed to Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp as the culmination of works evoking classical antiquity and a Grecian style, beginning with Faune and Chansons de Bilitis, proceeding through Preludes like La fille aux cheveux de lin and Bruyères and the most famous of all flute solos, Syrinx (1913), to this gentle pastoral sonata, which shares some melodic similarities with all of these works. There are three relaxed movements; the second, called Interlude, is marked “Tempo di menuetto”. Sooyun Kim, flute; Zhanbo Zheng, viola; and Krysten Keches, harp, gave a warm, rich, and spectral account.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.




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