April 27, 2023


Debussy: Préludes pour Piano—Book I; Estampes; Images pour orchestra—Rondes de printemps. Jean-Paul Gasparian, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Paul Paray: Seven Piano Pieces. Flavio Varani, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     It is the distinctive sound that Debussy brought to piano music that is one of the most distinguishing and distinguished elements of his oeuvre. And it is the distinctive sound that Jean-Paul Gasparian and the engineers at Naïve develop for Gasparian’s new CD of Debussy’s works that sets his performances apart from most other readings of this mostly familiar music. There is generally a certain solidity to piano music of the German school, certainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while the same time period brought a sense of delicacy, even evanescence, to the French piano school – with, as always, exceptions in both cases. Gasparian, in any case, fully embraces a kind of drifting, cloudlike sound for the first book of Debussy’s Préludes. His performances are most impressive when at their softest, as in the genuinely cloudy-sounding Voiles and nearly static feeling of Les son et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. And Des pas sur la neige is here so soft and drifting as almost not to be present at all – a remarkable aural effect. The liveliness of La danse de Puck provides genuine contrast in this reading with what has come before, and the concluding Minstrels seems both epigraphic and epigrammatic. Next on the disc and written in 1903, seven years before the first book of Préludes appeared, Estampes seems more like a sonic work in progress when, as here, it follows the later material instead of preceding it. Here the Impressionism of the writing, more than its sheer aural effect, is what Gasparian focuses on, so that Pagodes becomes genuinely evocative of an Oriental (or pseudo-Oriental) scene, La Soirée dans Grenade has its habanera rhythm elegantly presented but not over-emphasized, and Jardins sous la pluie has an exceptionally attractive perpetuum mobile feeling even as Gasparian makes the folksong on which it is based quite clear in its emergences. The CD ends with an intriguing encore in the form of Rondes de printemps, based by Debussy on the same folk tune as Jardins sous la pluie. This piece is from Images pour orchestre and is heard here in a world première recording of a transcription by the pianist’s father, Gérard Gasparian. The transcription itself is nicely done, faithful to the orchestral version but also containing some genuine pianistic elements, and Jean-Paul Gasparian’s inclusion of it stands as a tribute both to his father and to Debussy’s clever working and reworking of similar material in different ways. The music on this disc may be well-known, but Gasparian’s handling of it continually sheds new light on it.

     The music itself will be new to most listeners when it comes to an MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Flavio Varani. The disc includes seven works by Paul Marie-Adolphe Charles Paray, the long-lived conductor (1886-1979) who as Paul Paray was well-known for his sensitively presented concerts and recordings dating mostly to the 1950s and 1960s. These Paray compositions date to the exact same time period as the Debussy works played by Gasparian: Paray wrote all the pieces between 1903 and 1914. One of them, Sur la mer (1910), is every bit as Impressionistic as other French music of the same time period, Debussy’s included. The other pieces have considerable stylistic variety. Thème et variations (1913) uses a rather foursquare theme in numerous well-crafted ways that show Paray as a miniaturist of some distinction: the theme and six of the variations last less than two minutes each, and the final two variations just two-and-a-half apiece. The longest work on the disc is also a collection of miniatures: D’une âme (1914) starts with a proclamatory movement and soon moves through well-thought-out pieces reflecting a series of differing moods, among them Naïve, Rêveuse, Malicieuse, Fantasque, and Inquiète et Passionnée. After this, Varani offers Paray’s Impromptu (1910), which harks back to Chopin but with 20th-century harmonies. Then, with the three-movement Impressions (1912), it is again mood-setting time, especially so in the opening Nostalgie, whose title in many ways sums up all the Paray piano pieces heard on this disc. Also here is Tarentelle (1903), in which the typical rhythm of the tarantella is repeatedly interrupted by chordal intrusions, after which it breaks free again and again. Finally, Valse en fa dièse mineur (1906) offers a somewhat halting, almost limping version of three-quarter time with slight music-hall overtones. These Paray piano pieces are not in and of themselves especially innovative or distinctive, but this (+++) disc, which is very well played and which neatly showcases Paray’s varied pianistic interests, will be a treat for listeners who have heard plenty of better-known French piano pieces of the early 20th century – including those by Debussy – and would like to stretch their ears a bit by exploring some works that are much less often performed.

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