Stephen Hough: Debussy (Hyperion)
"I've loved Debussy from the very beginning when I first started to listen to classical music," pianist Stephen Hough says. "I found his world of imagination, the sounds he created at the piano, magical really."
Hough delves into that magical world on his first Debussy recording. He says it seemed like a fitting way to mark this year's centennial of the composer's death. On the new release, he focuses on the great triptych sets by Debussy, including Estampes 1 and 2, Images 1 and 2, and his Children's Corner, a suite that the composer wrote for his daughter. Hough closes the recording with two additional pieces, La Plus que Lente and L'isle joyeuse. Each of these works is unique, and they fully represent the evocative sound world that Debussy created.
Stephen, how do you describe Debussy's sound?
"What happened is that just around the beginning of the 20th century, he heard the gamelan, the Javanese gamelan orchestra at the Exposition in Paris, and was like so many people amazed by that different sound not just the instruments but the tonality that these instruments had. And I think he tried to put some of that onto the piano, and in so doing it's almost like he created a new sound for himself.
"It has to do with a lot of pedal, with a particular way of caressing the keys. There are moments of percussiveness in his music, but there's a lot more where you just sink into the keys as into a feather bed.
"When we play a note on the piano, the whole of the strings vibrate in empathy with that note, and he understood this very, very clearly and other composers, of course, knew that was happening. With Debussy, he thought, 'Well, this is something I can actually use. It's not just a side product; I'm going to take the side project and make a new product out of it.' And I think that's what you get with his music."
Now in the first set of pieces on your new recording, Estampes, this is where we hear the influence of the gamelan is that correct?
"Absolutely, yeah. I put this piece "Pagode," the first piece of Estampes, very much the beginning of the piece, because this to me is the moment when he creates a new sound at the piano. It's such a beautiful sound that it almost brings tears to my eyes, not even just because of the beauty of the music but just that the vibrations, the sonority that he creates on the keyboard. And it's so wonderful to play. You can't help but just let go, and in some ways, like on a cold day, if you sit in a hot bath you know everything just sort of becomes jelly in a way.
"This music is not just mood music, and that's really important. Debussy was a serious intellectual and a great composer in all the senses of that word, and he just didn't put down pretty sounds like many, maybe, New Age music can be. This music is conceived with great intellectual rigor. He was very specific about his notation every little dot, dash, phrase. It all fits in and all makes complete sense."
What's interesting is that it helps make the music sound almost improvised on the spot. Does that make it more challenging for you as a performer, or more intriguing because you can make it more your own?
"You know, he doesn't actually allow you a lot of freedom; it's interesting, he's almost too restrictive. In a piece like Children's Corner, which is later than the Estampes, they seem like very simple pieces written for his daughter. But if you look at them, they're astonishing. They're absolutely crammed with information. They're almost more dots and markings than there are notes in those pieces. And so, yes, he wants you to feel the improvisation, but he also knows exactly how he wants it to sound."
The other two sets are the Images 1 and 2. What would you say is the difference between these two sets?
"I think all six pieces in these two sets are absolutely top-drawer Debussy. There isn't a bar in there that's wasted. It's all on the highest level of inspiration, and each piece is completely, utterly different from the other. You have the 'Reflet de l'eau' ('Reflections in the Water') that begins Images 1. I mean, if they're all great, this is maybe the greatest of the six. It's a piece of unbelievable beauty and invention.
"'Cloches a traers les feuilles' ('Bells Through the Leaves') is the first book of Set 2. And here he has something that he does quite often, a three-part form, and the parts are divided by tonality. So the two outer parts, A, and the A sections are whole-note scales, which is a very characteristic sound of Debussy. He loved to use that color. Then the middle section, we go back to the gamelan-type music with these wonderful bell sounds."
Next up for Stephen Hough is a recording of Debussy's Preludes. To hear the full conversation about his new recording, and his first novel, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.