“I love pictures almost as much as music,” Claude Debussy remarked to Edgard Varèse in 1911. Seascapes, Spanish fiestas, watery reflections and mists can all be found in his music. In the first of three annual recitals at Wigmore Hall devoted to the composer, Philippe Cassard took us on an engrossing picture postcard tour of Debussy’s musical world, from Japanese gardens to Moorish palaces, with a detour via Ancient Greece. Intelligently programmed around five different themes, Cassard offered a masterclass in tone painting, drawing a remarkable range of hues and shades from the Wigmore Steinway.

Philippe Cassard © Vincent Catala
Philippe Cassard
© Vincent Catala

Pagodes illustrated the softer side of Cassard’s palette, chalky pastels and bell-like sonorities sketching a Japanese water garden awash with pentatonic scales and hints of Javanese Gamelan. Cassard’s right hand rippled delicate cascades as sunlight caught the water. As we moved from Asia to Spain, charcoal strokes provided bolder contrasts. Inspired by a postcard of the Moorish gate of the Alhambra in Grenada sent to Debussy by Manuel de Falla, La puerta del vino was a vivid display of light and shade.

This earthier Mediterranean section was also a delicious study in rhythm, from the swaying habanera of La soirée dans Granade – a steamy Andalusian evening, with hints of a fiesta from afar – to the jota of La Sérénade interrompue, where the troubadour’s melody is rudely interrupted. Cassard caught the brusque humour at work here, with lively imitations of a Spanish guitar. More dance came from the Bay of Naples, a tarantella rhythm infecting Les collines d’Anacapri, Debussy infusing his only Italian sojourn with the bright light of B major.

A section entitled “Paysages et poètes français” paid homage to Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, culminating in Cassard’s own tweaking of Leonard Borwick’s piano transcription of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Here, one missed the sensuality of the flute’s long, sustained opening phrases, but it was full of passionate ardour, even if the harmonies were smudged and smeared once or twice. An Impressionist Faune perhaps.

Debussy interest in classical antiquity had been aroused by the archaeological excavations of the French School of Athens in the late 19th century. He even had his own collection of Egyptian funerary urns. Danseuses de Delphes was inspired by ancient Greek sculptures in the Louvre, which Debussy admired. One could smell the incense as Cassard led us delicately through this slow sarabande, punctuated by percussion-like accents of major seconds, representing the crotales or finger cymbals used by dancers in Greek mythology. In 1894, the poet Pierre Louys had successfully passed off his Chansons de Bilitis as genuine ancient texts, which Debussy then set to music. He later transcribed some of them as piano solos, Six épigraphs antique from which we heard the seductive Pour l’égyptienne.

“With English Subtitles” offered a whimsical quartet. Shakespeare’s Puck leapt and scurried around the keyboard, Cassard raising eyebrows at his antics, while Dickens’ Samuel Pickwick was announced with the portentous notes of the national anthem. A pair of cake-walks concluded official proceedings, a Gallic shrug and an impish grin reserved for Debussy’s naughty Wagnerian quotation from Tristan und Isolde in the Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk.

Our final port of call, by way of a generous encore, was Jersey, where Debussy spent a week with Emma Bardac (soon to become his second wife) in 1904. The resulting L’isle joyeuse sent us into the December night enveloped in the shimmering heat of June. A delicious recital, making one hunger for next instalment.