Those who find that the words “complete works” hold a special allure will surely already know about the Debussy Chamber Music Festival taking place in Chicago this month, performed and organized by the Chicago Chamber Musicians, which offers the rare opportunity to hear the composer’s complete chamber works.

Monet, Japanese bridge in Giverny, oil on Canvas 101x89,9, Art Institute, Chicago.
Monet, Japanese bridge in Giverny, oil on Canvas 101x89,9, Art Institute, Chicago.

Most people know Debussy through his orchestral works (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune), his solo piano pieces (Claire de lune), and – as is increasingly the case on top 40-esque classical radio – orchestral arrangements of his piano pieces. Yet his chamber works are marked by an extraordinary compactness and efficiency of color; they are also where he experimented most extensively with traditional forms in multiple movements, developing his musical ideas in a more continuous and structured way than in the piano fragments and freely composed orchestral fantasies for which he is better known.

The fifth of six concerts in the Festival took place in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago on Sunday afternoon, and was titled, predictably enough, “Debussy and Impressionism”. The idea that Debussy’s music emerges from the same realm of thought that produced Monet’s water lilies and haystacks is often repeated in program notes and undergraduate textbooks, and though it is not exactly a misleading idea, pre-concert lecturers and pedagogues often push it too hard – as if Debussy’s notes and Monet’s brushstrokes were simply versions of one another, in sound and color. The recital was preceded by a brief talk in which various Impressionistic paintings were projected above the stage and followed by a guided tour of the Art Institute’s marvelous French wing, and I was grateful for the way in which Kathleen Burnett, who introduced the paintings, brought them into loose touch with the music without forcing them together.

Fullerton Hall, located immediately to the left once you surrender your Art Institute pass, is a somewhat unusual venue for a chamber music recital (one could occasionally hear the shouts of school groups entering the gallery). It is nearly as wide as it is long, which produces a feeling of very close proximity with the musicians on stage, and an acoustic that is supremely clear without becoming dry. The program covered two early works, the Piano Trio in G major and the String Quartet in G minor, and two very late works, the Cello and Violin Sonatas, both written in the last three years of Debussy’s life.

As each work requires a different set of instruments, the performers played musical chairs all afternoon, with the largest number coming together for the closing string quartet (the pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, also the artistic co-director, sitting out of the last curtain call). This ad hoc approach to collaboration highlighted the different abilities and temperaments of each musician, as well as the transformations undergone by the violin and cello in Debussy’s hands.

His cello, for instance, is fleeter than what is typically found in the Romantic repertory, with quicker draws and a skittish bow that sprays notes across the strings. The melodies tend not to press into you, as in Brahms, but flirt at the edge of your grasp, ducking in and out like a bird. Debussy, like his contemporary Ravel, expanded the role of the pizzicato in the string player’s tool-kit: thus the cellist Clancy Newman was often seen hunched over his instrument as if it were some oversized guitar, the plucked notes dancing against Liu’s spare keyboard-work. The violinist Jasmine Lin, who joined Newman and Liu for the Trio, produced a wonderfully sweet and focused sound; the other violinist, Joseph Genualdi, who played the Sonata, brought forth a Debussy of a certain strength and presentness of tone. The violist Rami Solomonow rounded out the ensemble for the String Quartet.

In truth, these small ensemble pieces feel more like a compacted Brahms, with a similar intensity of line and individuality in each part, than like pieces that are supposedly full of sensory light effects. Yet there are moments when the music does put one in mind of a certain painterly technique of dappling and blend, as when soft pulsed notes in the strings are accompanied by the gentle bite of piano chords, giving them, miraculously, and for a brief moment, the quality of woodwinds. In these moments the discreteness of the instruments disappears, melting into puddled, pooled sound – not, as it happens, unlike the effect of green and blue mixed on the surface of a pond.