Pianist Paul Roberts

paul-robertsBy Roger Emanuels

A SINGLE COMPOSER concert program can be a detriment to ticket sales, but the Distinguished Artists all-Debussy recital on March 18 at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz proved the opposite. Debussy is a draw after all.

Pianist Paul Roberts is a leading authority of the piano music of Debussy and Ravel, having published major studies with another on the music of Liszt. Roberts offered up a large and colorful array of Debussy’s major dual contributions to modern music and to the exploration of piano sonorities, performing Images, Books 1 and 2, and Book 1 of the Preludes. Paired with the mighty resident Yamaha piano, artist and piano painted vivid pictures in sound. Before beginning the announced program, Mr. Roberts chose to play a favorite warm-up piece as a prelude, Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, also by Debussy. Rippling scale passages were supple and sparkling, perfect for what was to follow.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) had produced his great impressionist symphonic work La Mer in 1905. The six pieces of Images were composed during that era. The Preludes are later works. The two books of Preludes each contain twelve short character pieces, all gems of impressionist art in music. The first set of twelve was published in 1910. Each piece evokes a different subject or mood.

Debussy was drawn to poets and painters, and after seeing the work of English painter JMW Turner in 1903, declared Turner as the “finest creator of mystery in art.” In 1911 he told Edgar Varèse, “I love pictures almost as much as music.” Turner’s subject matter was close to Debussy’s heart: the power of the sea, and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. His paintings of ships in the mist produce a similar effect as the Prelude Voiles, translated as Sails or Veils. Roberts delicate pedaling helped produce a foggy, misty scene.

In “The hills of Anacapri,” a colorful landscape engages the listener, as if hills and valleys are filled with eye-pleasing scenes. “Footsteps in the snow” came across as the composer intended, “sad and frozen,” indicated in score. “Girl with the flaxen hair” was played with sweetness and innocence, with clear and ringing bell tones. “The Sunken Cathedral” was dripping with seawater as it emerged into view. Once again, discreet pedaling is the key to evoking the scene. “The Dance of Puck” brought an involuntary chuckle from the audience at the end of the set. Played without applause until the end, the twelve pieces of Book 1 form an important step in the composer’s development of style and musical language. Seldom performed as a whole, it was a rare treat to hear the pieces this way. An audience member remarked at intermission that although he was familiar with this music through recordings, hearing it live was a refreshingly new experience.

The composer’s interest in paintings is nowhere more obvious than the series of the six pieces of Images, composed in 1901-07. Each is more substantial than the shorter Preludes, creating more variety of mood. As one of Debussy’s many “water works,” “Reflections in the Water” is a vivid sound picture that evokes swirling currents. “Tribute to Rameau” is an elegant sarabande rhythm that ends with the grandeur of the French court of the 17th century. The quirky unfolding of “Movement” suggests sleigh bells. “Golden Fishes” is the last in the series, with fish and water images inspired by a Japanese lacquer print that the composer hung near his piano.

It occurred to this listener that it was strange to hear a complete recital that contained so little music of metrical pulse. One does not tap the feet to Debussy’s rhythm, as it is so irregular and with great flexibility of line. Rather, the ear is filled with sumptuous sounds, an array of musical colors and shadings. Roberts is able to bring out these qualities and create the variety of moods that the music suggests.

The Distinguished Artists Concert & Lecture Series has announced its next season, including an all-Brahms recital by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.