About the performer
Why choose Ángel Cabrera to perform this anthology of Debussy? Because he is a pianist of the first order, fêted with international prizes and accolades? Or because of his technique, of such brilliance that it allows him to tackle any and every type of challenge?
I'd say that it was because of these and many other qualities. For instance, there is the fact that he does not pound away at the keyboard, still a defect of many a great pianist who seeks the easy effect, by selling himself to the public; then there is his supremely delicate sensitivity; and, lastly, there is his ability to produce some incredible piano passages, in obedience to what Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918) himself sought.
Shortly before his death, Debussy taught Marguerite Long to play a pianissimo which appears on page three of L'Isle Joyeuse (The Happy Island) and which, to his way of thinking, was never sufficiently piano. Indeed, when the maestro played, he did not like to leave the lid of the grand piano up and used to shut it.
In a discussion with his teacher, Prof. Guiraud, at a time when Debussy was still a very young man, he laid stress already then on the importance of nuances, something in which Ángel Cabrera specialises and which he manages to elicit from the many singers and musicians with whom he works.
Debussy was never able to hear Ángel Cabrera but I suspect he would very much have liked to.
About the works
This recording bears faithful witness to the fact that Claude Debussy was not only an exceptional performer but also renewed the technique of an instrument like the piano. He found it difficult to find pianists of sufficient calibre to interpret his works. The critics said that Debussy used the pedals as if they were the piano's very breath… The maestro himself admitted that, on seeing how Liszt played in Rome, he had adopted this manner of playing.
Debussy was labelled "impressionist" but always rejected the term, and rightly so in my opinion. If one were to venture an opinion on this topic, Debussy's art is order and harmony, and is not limited to seeking an impression. His entire body of work responds to a systematic search for form and internal organisation, even where floating nebulous clouds, flowing water or air in motion are concerned.
Rêverie (1890). The recording begins with this dreamy meditation. Already here, one notes the renaissance of a virtuosity studded with harmonic subtlety. Debussy goes in search of strange infrequent resonances, which he was subsequently to embody and perfect in many other works, such as Images. The composer himself said, "I seek the sentimental transposition of what is invisible in nature" (transposition sentimentale de ce qui est "invisible" dans la nature.).
Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) and Arabesques (1888-1901). These are some of the works that changed Albéniz's point of view with respect to the art of composing. The Spanish maestro belonged to César Frank's circle of friends, who were not enamoured of "impressionists". Perhaps this was why Albéniz failed to find common ground with Debussy, though he assimilated the latter's work, as can be seen from his latest works.
The Suite Bergamasque comprises four pieces, i.e., Prélude, Menuet, the world famous Clair de lune (Moonlight) and Passepied.
Deep pressure and profound key attack are required to play the Suite and Arabesques. The maestro regarded closeness to the keyboard as essential. He was wont to say, "The root of the sound must vibrate". André Suarès stated, "Debussy has created a form for piano music. He has conceived it as an original instrument […] In order to play this legato successfully, the performer has to feel the sound on his fingertips: gentleness in strength and strength in gentleness."
The two arabesques enjoyed great acclaim from the very outset and continue to do so. They reveal the composer's personality. Let's think back to the comment made by the extraordinary Françoise Gervais, "To Debussy the word arabesque or the word sketch have a meaning that is completely different to the normal. Bear in mind that, to Debussy, the term sonata was equivalent to "free fantasia".
Estampes (1903). Debussy always displayed keen interest in the music of the Orient, Chinese, Japanese and Indian. It should just be recalled that, at a time when it was not as easy to travel, Claude journeyed across France to the famous Solesmes Abbey in search of Gregorian chant and to Bayreuth to acquaint herself with Wagner's music in situ.
Debussy was overwhelmed by the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, where Russian works and oriental music, such as the Javanese gamelan, were played. He was also a lover of the visual arts, and very specifically of the Japanese art that so amazed his generation. The translation here of "estampes" could be Japanese-style engravings or drawings.
Estampes is made up of Pagodes (Pagodas), La soirée dans Grenade (The Evening in Granada) and Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain)
Indonesia inspired Pagodas, and its orientalising design is perfectly discernable. The Andalusian night of La soirée dans Grenade inspired the composer to pen a haughty, melancholic habanera. In the score, the composer asks for a "nonchalantly graceful" rhythm, which could be translated as "elegant, with a certain indolence". Debussy's identification with Spain is clearly evident. Sight should not be lost of the fact that he was the composer of Iberia, an extraordinary hymn to Spain. Jardins sous la pluie alludes to a childhood paradise, the very popular Luxembourg Gardens in the heart of Paris. This piece reproduces the chords of a well-known children's song, "Nous n'irons plus aux bois". The composer asked for "sun in mind", that same sun, so short-lived in Paris, between two cloudbursts, which allows children to come out and play.
La plus que lente (1910). Composers tend to be the worst judges of the value of their own works. An example of this is this waltz, one of Debussy's best known pieces. Critics tend to report that the maestro confessed to having written a parody of the music of certain Parisian cafés where genteel ladies listened to music while taking tea; according to these same critics, only some indulgent listeners were able to perceive the irony of his composition. Yet, neither Debussy's opinion nor that of these critics ought to be taken into account when it comes to evaluating the quality of his work. Let's delight in the extraordinary charm of this waltz as it loses itself among its own swirls and eddies, and forget those hurried interpretations based on rehashed biographies.
L'Isle Joyeuse (1914). According to the composer, this work must have taken its inspiration from the painter, Watteau's masterpiece, Embarkation for Cythera (1717). Debussy said that the performer had to put himself into the shoes of an 18th-century man. It is a lavish work, a joyous outpouring. Its modulations make it a challenge for even the most accomplished maestros.
The initial cadenza is conceived as a call, summoning the travellers. Then, once the main theme has made its appearance, the rhythm must be maintained, in constant progression, with a movement that grows faster and faster, though without sacrificing a single nuance. The finale is dizzying. One is not sure just who is going to win …the sound?, the light? The breakneck rhythm calls for more than a pianist, it demands a virtuoso. Insofar as the fingering is concerned, heed must be paid to what Debussy himself had to say on the matter.
It should be noted that this was the last work on which Debussy and his favourite performer, Marguerite Long, collaborated. 2014 marked the sad centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Marguerite Long told those of us who were her pupils that she began to work on this score with Debussy in July 1914. On 2 August war was declared, and eighteen days later the great pianist was widowed. The composer would likewise not survive the war. In 1917 in San Juan de Luz, Debussy and Madame Long devoted what was to be his last summer to endless repetitions of L'Isle Joyeuse.
Nevertheless, this work, associated with such terrible circumstances, is a paean to hope and joy: the most fitting finale for this concerto.
Jeannine Bouché de Español
Ángel Cabrera, piano.
Born in Guadalajara, Spain, in November 1977, Angel Cabrera began to improvise on the piano from a very early age, encouraged by his father who played various instruments by ear. Indeed, this was how Cabrera came to develop his affinity with and love for music, and what led him to begin his piano training at the Music Conservatory under Esther Zillarbide. Subsequently, he studied under maestros of the calibre of Fernando Puchol, Luis Rego, Galina Eguiazarova, Márta Gulyás, Boris Bloch and Aldo Ciccolini.
At a later stage, he had the honour of working side by side for ten years with the great Finnish baritone, Tom Krause, with whom he discovered a new universe of sound. Through their philosophy of life and way of understanding music, Tom Krause and Aldo Ciccolini became his greatest artistic and personal influence.
Cabrera shows himself to be a deeply passionate artist possessed of an exceptional diversity of touch, which enables him to play the most complex works with an astounding facility. His performances, brimming with poetic expression and incomparable technical control, make for a fascinating listening experience. "Ángel Cabrera transports us to some imaginary childhood planet with Debussy's "Deux Arabesques", a repertoire that he plays with absolute perfection, breathing the very air of the music and making it breathe..." says the La Nueva España newspaper, to which Ine Noticias adds, “an exquisite taste and outstanding technique” and Horizons states, “Ángel Cabrera, more than anybody else, knows how to communicate this powerful and creative spirit, with an artistic vision swathed in candour and hope".
Cabrera is also an enthusiastic and committed chamber musician who collaborates with leading artists such as Iwona Sobotka, Teresa Berganza, Helen Donath, Manuel Cid, Francisco Corujo, Manuel Lanza and soloists of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Berlin Ensemble, performing at some of the most prestigious concert venues around the world.
In addition to Cabrera's many live recordings for RNE (Spanish National Radio), RTVE (Spanish Radio & Television), Radio France and Canal Internacional, recording projects meriting special mention include his “Songs of Paolo Tosti” with Francisco Corujo, and Frédéric Chopin's complete song cycle with Iwona Sobotka, both released on the PlayClassics label.
Aside from the prizes won at the 1st José Iturbi International Music Competition of America, 16th José Iturbi International Piano Competition of Valencia and 9th Concours-Grieg International Piano Competition of Oslo, Ángel Cabrera has also received awards for his performances of Spanish Music, Edvard Grieg and Frédéric Chopin.