Waltzing on a Monday evening? Wigmore Hall is not exactly the Tower Ballroom, but last night it did a fair impression as a temple of dance when Philippe Cassard played the third of his Debussy Perspectives series. Previous recitals had focused on themes of travel and water, but here Cassard turned his attention to Terpsichore, tripping the light fantastic in a seductive programme – not strictly Debussy – designed to set toes tapping and pulses racing.

Philippe Cassard © Vincent Catala
Philippe Cassard
© Vincent Catala

As a critic, Debussy was often waspish in assessment of his fellow composers. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces were dismissed as “pink bonbons stuffed with snow”, while he thought it was “degrading” for Erik Satie to supplement his earnings as a cabaret pianist. Cassard included a brief selection of works by other composers in Debussy’s sphere to provide some context, starting with Chopin – a composer he revered above all others.

Cassard strikes a dapper figure and his playing is elegant without being unnecessarily showy. Waltzes were dispatched with the lightest of touches, wistfully teasing the line in the nostalgic La plus que lente. Satie’s Je te veux transported us to perfumed Parisian salons, a slow waltz full of deliciously timed hesitations. With Cassard seated on a chair, the Wigmore’s piano stool was reserved as a resting place for discarded scores, although some escaped, gliding to the floor.

Auguste Durand, father of Debussy’s publisher, composed waltzes for ballet classes at the Palais Garnier. Cassard demonstrated how – slowed down – something like the Op.83 Valse would be used for daily class. Listening to the pirouetting left hand figures whirring away, the paintings of dancers by Edgar Degas sprang to mind. There was great clarity to Cassard’s Chopin, while the Scherzo-Valse from Chabrier’s Pièces pittoresques had an earthy, rustic stamp. Grieg’s trolls clattered noisily across the keyboard, although the yearning middle section high in the treble was played with crystalline delicacy and poise.

Rehearsal hall at the Opera (Edgar Degas) © Wikicommons
Rehearsal hall at the Opera (Edgar Degas)
© Wikicommons

But it is in Debussy that Cassard is truly at home, cradling and caressing phrases as if discovering them for the first time. As he launched into the stately, mystical Danseuses de Delphes, the opening item from the first book of Préludes, I silently wished for him to proceed through all twenty-four, so masterly is his art. We did get two more préludes: the diaphanous Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers), its title taken from a line in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens; and La sérénade interrompue, the piano transformed into a Spanish guitar with its repeated staccato notes. A mazurka and a restless tarantella careered past, along with a carefree Danse bohémienne, written for Tchaikovsky’s patron, Nadezhda von Meck, and dismissed by the Russian composer as “too short with themes that don’t go anywhere”. Perhaps Tchaikovsky was taking revenge at having suffered at the pen of “Monsieur Croche” himself!

Cassard’s Debussy took us back in time, with two numbers from the Suite bergamasque; the courtly Menuet, nimbly articulated, the bustling Passepied with some smudged counterpoint. It was the Sarabande though (from Pour le piano) that was at the heart of this recital, its veiled sonorities and stately progression touched with great sadness – a study in regret.

This was the final instalment of Cassard’s memorable Debussy series. Let’s hope he returns soon.