Korstick’s Wide-Awake Debussy, Vol. 5 Released

Korstick cover

DEBUSSY: Études, Books I & II. Étude retrouverée. Masques. D’un cahier esquisses. L’Isle joyeuse. Nocturne. Danse pour piano: Tarantelle styrienne / Michael Korstick, pn / SWR Music 19044CD / Bonus track: Jeux, piano version available for download or streaming

Michael Korstick’s traversal of Debussy’s piano music reaches its apex with this release of the fifth volume in the series. Here we have the very late Debussy of the Études, music that, by and large, many Debussy aficionados have never warmed up to. This is because they don’t sound like Debussy. By this point in his career, his music was influenced to some degree by his newfound friendship with Igor Stravinsky and an attraction to a more objective and less opaque sound-world. This is also the Debussy that produced the late ballet score Jeux, another work admired by musicians but seldom by the public.

Not surprisingly, then, Korstick plays the Études with a wide-awake, straight-ahead style for the most part, only occasionally giving us moments of opaque shades as in the third Étude of Book I. This is a far cry from the soft-grained approach of Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Decca 460247, where the pianist not only plays with more pedal but also distends many phrases with rubato and rallentando effects. Many critics jumped on Thibaudet’s bandwagon when that recording came out, but to my ears it has always sounded mannered. There is nothing mannered about Korstick’s approach.

The question then arises, What is the best way to play Debussy? One famous French pianist who was alive in Debussy’s time, Alfred Cortot, also did not indulge in soporific Debussy; his recordings of Debussy were as objective and crisp as his recordings of Schumann and Beethoven. The one feature that Cortot had in common with the composer’s own playing, as preserved in a handful of early G&T recordings and several Welte-Mignon piano rolls, was a way of eliciting sounds from the piano as if the keys were playing the fingers, not the other way round. Both had a superb sense of touch that drew the music out, and much to everyone’s surprise, Debussy’s own performances of his piano music were generally a bit faster than the scores indicated.

Korstick adheres to score accuracy as much as possible, believing that Debussy meant what he put down on paper. Whether or not the composer played these works that way, we’ll never know; he did not record the Études, but there is a Debussy recording of D’un cahier esquisses available on Pieran 0001 that is almost identical to what Korstick gives us here—minus a few moments of (unwritten) rubato. Moreover, as indicated in the liner notes, the first book of the études are indeed mostly finger exercises. It is only in the second book that he expanded his vocabulary to include more interesting compositional structures, such as the highly imaginative “Pour les sonorités opposées (For opposing sonorities),” which sounds like it might be stuffy and dry but is one of Debussy’s most atmospheric compositions. The last étude in Book I is as technically difficult as anything written by Liszt and nearly as difficult as Alkan, but then again, so is the first étude of Book II, “Pour les d’egrés chromatiques.” The important thing, to me, is that in all his other recordings of other composers’ music, including his superb series of Koechlin’s music, Korstick immerses himself completely in the score. It’s as if each note and phrase have become part of his own DNA, yet the genetic programming does not produce a mechanical result. Rather, his Debussy is as alive and vibrant as his Koechlin, Mussorgsky, and Beethoven. Korstick is truly a chameleon of the keyboard, one of the greatest of living pianists and one able to convince you that everything he does is right.

I can’t recall ever having heard the Étude retrouverée or Masques played more exquisitely than Korstick does here. He has surely worked on these scores until your listening experience comes close to what Debussy might have felt when he composed them. Of all the pieces presented here, only L’Isle joyeuse struck me as a bit prosaic in phrasing.

As a bonus track, available for download or streaming after the CD is released circa January 15, we have the piano reduction of his last ballet, Jeux. Debussy was, at this stage, very much under Stravinsky’s influence, and it shows in this complex piece, another work that many Debussy fans can take or leave. As musicologist Robert Orledge points out in the liner notes:

…his piano reduction of late 1912 represents what Debussy saw as the essential underlying musical argument within this complex creation…All that he heard in his head over and above what is in this reduction can be heard in the orchestral score, which means that the pianist should feel less responsibility to fit in the material on the extra staves that Debussy added in a smaller typeface.

Korstick’s performance, like the music itself, reveals a mixture of Debussy with several Stravinsky-isms. Moreover, like most of the Études, he again plays it in a wide-awake manner, leaving those who prefer the more opaque Debussy of La plus que lent or Clair de lune frowning in disappointment. But it is an extraordinary performance; in fact, I can honestly say that for the first time—having heard the orchestrated version at least a dozen times—I understand the structure better by listening to this performance. Korstick is not shy about playing the rhythms crisply, saving his moments of lingering for the rare soft passages such as those between the 11 and 12-minute mark, before the music again turns to a faster pace and more wide-awake style at 12:09.

Thus Korstick wraps up his Debussy journey, one as much a yardstick for future generations of pianists as his Beethoven sonatas. I cannot praise it highly enough.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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