Seeing Debussy, Hearing Monet

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Jeux – poème dansé
La mer – three symphonic sketches

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Devised, presented and conducted by David Robertson

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 November, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

David RobertsonThe very idea of having concert-music ‘accompanied’ by anything – be it lighting or amplification (unless the composer very specifically designs it) – is anathema; just as disagreeable would be a soundtrack to viewing paintings in a museum (as ‘dumb’ as putting muzak in shops, banks, offices and hotels).

David Robertson is an enterprising, versatile and respectful musician, always welcome in London, so that his proposing a concert (the first of two) that mixes visual and musical elements immediately made one take the notion seriously. Of course, the link between Debussy and Monet is a simple one to grasp: that of Impressionism. Yet, it is reported that Debussy was far from keen on this term being applied to his music, but this is not to deny that Monet constructed his paintings with the same finite concern for every brushstroke and use of colour and chiaroscuro as did Debussy for notes, rhythms, dynamics and scoring.

Claude MonetThere are of course parallels and it is not difficult to find them through one’s own resources. Yet the concept of a lecture-concert (not that this event was billed as such) appealed and also attracted a very full house – one wondered if the art was the lure or whether it was the opportunity to find out more about the music through a complementary medium.

Robertson is an excellent and friendly communicator and a spontaneous one, too – his talking to the audience was inviting, erudite and – for all the use of an autocue – winningly natural. First class (if needing the lighting more doused than it was). Yet for all the greatness of the art and the music, did the two really come together? Were they meant to? If one is equally attuned to painting and music, maybe; if, like this writer, the bias is to music and listening but who is also discovering more and more wonderful paintings (by pure chance I had been at an exhibition just a few hours earlier and there had much appreciated numerous Impressionists) and I came away from this concert more attuned to the workings of Monet and vowing to look more closely in future. Robertson was correct to suggest that we tend to look away too quickly when viewing. I do.

Water Lilies (The Clouds) [1903] by Claude Monet.Conversely, it’s quite possible that some listeners will not get the finer effects of music, its subtle changes of colours and dynamics, for example. And some will have arrived knowing these Debussy pieces very well (we’d like to think) – even Jeux, an elusive if great masterpiece that long shrugged off its original ballet (tennis match) association (so much so that Robertson never mentioned the music’s genesis), although while the Monet paintings such as “Water-Lillies” and selections from “Mornings on the Seine” were well presented on a big screen and allured the eye, one wondered if these were meant to feed appreciation of the music, or vice versa, or whether one should adopt a more relaxed approach to simile. Yes, Robertson made some convincing relationships to how ‘Faune’ is constructed in alignment to a Monet, yet while a painting is ‘fixed’ if open to numerous reactions and interpretations, music, notated in great detail in a medium foreign to the end result of sound, is performable in many different ways and open to the imagination of musicians and brought to life by them, sometimes in highly personal ways – the informed listener reacting to a particular performance as much as to the music.

Morning on the Seine, Good Weather (1897), by Claude MonetAnd then there is memory. The music-lover can know a piece in great detail and turn on the memory-bank for a wonderful in-head performance. Maybe an afficianado of painting can remember a canvas in the same of sort of relief, even something as seemingly ‘blurred’ and ‘unreal’ as Impressionism in which overall effect rather than analyses seems more important. Yet, in music, analyses and ‘taking apart’ can be as satisfying than experiencing the finished piece – and, for a musician, study is a vital part of getting inside a composer’s machinations.

Water Lilies by Claude MonetRobertson, of course, knows every move that Debussy made – he has to conduct and talk about the music; he even conducted the mysterious Jeux from memory (as he did the other two works), something that suggests a very formal structure underpins this ‘poème dansé’ (which the active listener will also identify) that could well be part of Monet’s thinking when constructing his art. Yet music seems, ultimately, to be requiring the greater discipline – the need to notate, in writing, a concept of sound, whereas a painting is what it is to whoever is looking at it.

The first half of this concert, beginning with a dramatic snippet of La mer, gave way to lively presentation and examples from Monet and Debussy. At 75 minutes this first half was maybe too long, perhaps too much time spent on ‘Faune’ – except perhaps for anyone coming new to it (but would the paintings have helped?). The puerile ringing-tone of a mobile (subjected to a crescendo as the miscreant-owner unearthed the phone to switch it off) and, simultaneously, the bleep of someone’s watch announcing it was 8 o’clock, sabotaged the complete performance of ‘Faune’. (Switch it off, mate!) As Robertson said, Debussy wanted to make silence as expressive as sound. He lived in less scourged times: today so much noise is imposed upon us.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by HokusaiWhat ‘Faune’ demonstrated, less rewardingly, is that the Barbican Hall acoustic remains a traitor to the very quietest dynamics and also adds an unhelpful bright light to fortissimos. Both ‘Faune’ and Jeux were less atmospheric than they can be, sometimes too loud and edgy – hardly lit from within – and while both were exceptionally well prepared, the scrupulous attention to detail, while gratifying, seemed at odds with the Impressionism tag if more in-line with Debussy’s own assessment of his music. Indeed, Jeux was rather clinical, often to its advantage, if making “Water-Lillies” seem a somewhat incongruous partner (which moved in slow-motion, often contrary to the music, from left to right across its whole); and I must say that full engagement with the music was slightly compromised by having these images. Maybe, after all this, great art, be it music, painting, poetry and film, requires undivided and separate attention to do it justice.

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) ca.1908But, as I say, I shall view a painting differently in the future. La mer was introduced altogether more minimally and was here accompanied by colour woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige: Debussy himself chose one-such to adorn the first publication of La mer. What a masterpiece! And given a performance as incisive as before (voluble, too) – as attuned to Debussy’s symphonic thought as descriptive ebb and flow – but altogether more suitable for the greater dimension of the music. In the finale, Robertson passed over the ad lib brass fanfares – fairly enough as this seems to represent Debussy’s wishes (as I understand it, Ernest Ansermet reinstated them) – yet this listener has heard them, prefers them, and the brain adds them in anyway.

A thought-provoking concert, then, and carried off with elan and insight. A second such concert, “Bartók/Van Gogh Organic Symmetries” is planned on 8 March next year also at the Barbican Hall. Meanwhile I shall continue to listen to Debussy but shall view Monet in a different way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content