It was fitting that critically acclaimed Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa should open her Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert with a work by one of her countrymen: Rain Tree Sketch II by Toru Takemitsu. Not only does this piece of late 20th-century impressionism draw direct influences from the music of Debussy, which formed the bulk of the programme, it was performed on a day when many people came into the Wigmore shaking rain from umbrellas, hats and raincoats.
Composed as a tribute to Olivier Messiaen, whom Takemitsu greatly admired, and full of echoes of the French master’s music, Rain Tree Sketch II also shares many characteristics of the music of Claude Debussy in its descriptive title and colourful harmonies, and its timeless poetic beauty. And Debussy was also fascinated by the music of the Far East. Inspired by a story by Kenzaburo Oe called “The Ingenious Rain Tree”, the tree is used as a wider metaphor for the whole universe, and the opening section, reprised at the end, is marked “celestially light”. In it, Noriko Ogawa demonstrated exquisite tonal control and musical clarity, with some delightful bass sonorities, bright droplets of sound, and elegantly nuanced layers and textures.
Early in 1915, disheartened by the menace and savagery of World War I and terminally ill with cancer, Debussy still managed to compose. The result was his 12 Études (study pieces or exercises), his last important works for solo piano, which came to be regarded as a distillation of his love of the piano, and his musical legacy. It was appropriate that Debussy – the most original composer for the piano since Franz Liszt – joined the ranks of étude composers. He dedicated his études to Chopin: like Chopin before him, Debussy elevated the étude from a dry student study to a concert piece, and his études share much of the charm and beauty of Chopin's, and some of the vertiginous virtuosity of Liszt’s Transcendental Études. They are as much studies in composition as piano technique, and display the same aesthetic concerns as his earlier pieces for piano with their complex harmonies, fragmented melodies and colourful textures.
The Études are divided into two books, each different in conception. The pieces are extremely difficult to play: Debussy himself described them as “a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands”. Book I examines the technical problems and musical possibilities inherent in different intervals (thirds, fourths, sixths, etc.), while Book II explores musical language and style with exercises in aspects such as chromaticism, ornaments, repeated notes and chords.
The Études are witty, challenging, humorous and inspired, with their references to that master of the piano study Carl Czerny (Book I, no. 1), grotesque juxtapositions, bizarre modulations, whole-tone harmonies, complex syncopations, multi-layered textures redolent of the second set of Images and some of the Préludes, and the need for extreme finger dexterity.
Noriko Ogawa brought these pieces to life with scrupulous attention to the written score (Ogawa has described Debussy as requiring “a cool mind and lots of control”), a broad and evocative dynamic palette, ranging from bright fortes to the softest murmured pianissimos, sparkling passagework, delicate showers of sound, and fleet-fingered scales and arpeggios. The chief attraction of Ogawa’s Debussy playing, apart from her pristine delivery and her ability to produce a consistently beautiful sound, is her skill in reminding the listener that not all of Debussy’s music is misty and impressionistic. She played with a bright stridency when required, often highlighting the oriental references in the music. At other times there were rich bass rumblings and growls (Book I, no. 2), a warm Chopinesque poignancy (Book I, no. 4), robust exuberance contrasted with charming serenity, and an almost Lisztian percussiveness (Book II, no. 12).
It is a mistake to treat these pieces as a dry academic exercise, and Noriko Ogawa performed them with obvious humour, warmth and charm, underpinned by expert and tasteful pedalling and superb technical facility, all of which continued into the encore, the bumptious, entertaining Prélude “Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq.”