“Wigmore Hall is flooded now!” confessed Philippe Cassard. It was Claude Debussy who left the tap running, with every form of precipitation – rain, snow, fog – pouring from the Steinway's keyboard, trickling from fountain, springing from river beds. From submerged cathedral to aquatic dwellers, our voyage even took us along Venice's Grand Canal before finally reaching Jersey. This second recital in Cassard's “Perspectives” series proved every bit as magical as the first, which had taken us on a picture postcard tour of Debussy's musical world.
Before any Debussy, however, we were plunged straight into the musical equivalent of a cold shower via Ravel's Jeux d'eau and the work which inspired it, Liszt's Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este. The Ravel glittered in brittle demisemiquavers cascading from the treble's fountain while Liszt's teased more, bathed in a warmer Italian glow. Au bord d'une source burbled and rippled, Cassard maintaining a long trill to perfection. This trio acted as an ideal curtain-raiser to Cassard's own shimmering arrangement of the Fountain Scene from Act II of Pelléas et Mélisande.
Once again, I was impressed by Cassard's programming, not just of the themed recital as a whole, but of his grouping of works. Each selection often enabled him to segue from one to the next, staving off applause. The sonorous underwater bells of La Cathédrale engloutie tolled mysteriously, before stormier conditions took over, the Steinway lid juddering, buffeted by the west wind in another of the Préludes. Smudged pastels of Brouillards, muted wisps of grey fog, drifted into a light flurry of October snow, Cassard finding an astonishing dynamic range in The Snow is Dancing. Other highlights were the tentative footsteps in fresh-fallen snow and the gentle rainfall of Jardins sous la pluie.
As one would expect from being a regular radio presenter on France Musique, Cassard also proved himself a natural communicator. He took great delight in introducing the third of Debussy's Images oubliées by describing the composer's annotation in the score where, presumably anticipating an orchestration, he marks an arpeggiated passage with the instruction that “here, harps mimic peacocks fanning their tails... or peacocks mimic harps (as you please!)”. When he reached that particular passage, Cassard impishly grinned towards the audience, and concluded the work by vocalising Debussy's command “Shut up, bell!” (assez la Cloche!).
After the interval, we followed a similar watery course, encountering a few lively characters along the way, including darting goldfish and the playful nymph Ondine, the latter inspired by Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s story. Cassard's delicacy of touch in Voiles entranced, as did his epic palette of colour in Reflets dans l'eau, as vast a canvas as some of Monet's Water Lily series. Chopin's Barcarolle in F sharp major offered a brief Venetian detour, its fast pace perhaps more vaporetto than gondola, while L'isle joyeuse brought the recital to a dramatic end. Dramatic and bloody. Cassard twice aborted his encore of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum due to bleeding fingers, settling instead for Clair de lune, the rainclouds finally parting to reveal balmy moonbeam shafts. An exquisite recital, exquisitely performed.
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