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Debussy: Reflections in the Water
Stravinsky: Sonata (1924)
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Opus 19
Ravel: Sonatina
Pianist James Boyk's program notes for his album
(Performance Recordings® pr4)

 
In deciding on a program, I am guided by a pleasure principle: I play what I feel like playing. So when I chose the works for this concert, I had in mind no intellectual idea.

After the fact, though, I realized that these four pieces could be heard as varied reactions to late Romanticism's self-absorption and lush sound. Despite differences, the works share a delicacy of which modest size is one aspect. This is most striking in the Stravinsky and Ravel, three-movement works on a scale reminiscent of Mozart rather than, say, Brahms. The Stravinsky recalls Mozart also in its transparent texture. The Ravel is richer yet still not heavy, its lightness coming from using higher registers and avoiding thick chords.

Both these pieces turn back toward a more classical, arm's-length expression of emotion, as involving as the Romantics but with the self occupying less of the picture. The Schoenberg pieces, by contrast, carry personal feeling to breaking point. Hyper-Romantic, one might call them. But however emotionally full, they are austere in their silences and rigorous condensing of gesture. To the ear as well as the eye, they resemble certain modern poetry: irregular phrases dense with expression, broken up by lots of space.

 
The Schoenberg set is technically radical in being atonal, but the esthetically radical work is the Debussy, for it has no protagonist. It is not about a person's hopes, struggles or triumphs, nor about a relation with God. It is a picture, simply, of Nature. No human is present except as observer.

Nor is any human time sense present. Perhaps this is why playing the Debussy takes me out of myself and seems to quiet and refresh the audience. It is a wonderful base from which to move on to the objective time of the Stravinsky; the internal, asymmetrical heartbeat of the Schoenberg pieces—with time extinguished in the last of them, an elegy; and finally the sociable ebb and flow of the Ravel.

 
The listener to this recording could try all possible orders for these pieces, and would like some better than others. Every artist, too, has individual goals and preferences. The program is as charactistic of the artist, in its way, as the interpretations. You could almost say it's part of the interpretations. My own taste is for programs with coherent emotional line and "high profile," in which a striking placement or grouping enhances the experience of each work.

My programs are shaped too by my own reactions when I am a member of an audience. Often I enjoy the second half a concert more than the first. I'm more settled, more attentive and responsive. (Sometimes I wish concerts began after intermission.) So I try, in my own concerts, to involve the listener immediately, with music of a certain inward quality. The Debussy is a perfect example.

I would not begin with the Schoenberg pieces. With no rapport established in the concert hall, their intense and idiosyncratic emotion might affect the listener like being accosted by a weird and insistent stranger: a desire to edge away might preclude attention to what is being said.

The Ravel or Stravinsky could open, but length would be a problem. Seating latecomers after the entire work would penalize them too much; seating them after just one movement would disturb those already in the hall.

At the end of a concert, when I am in the audience, I like to applaud, to release pent-up energy and to assert my importance, as a listener, in the exchange with the performer. Applause comes easier after a piece with rhythmic drive and energetic dynamics. The only one of the group which ends like this is the Ravel.

The Stravinsky could close the program, but a different flavor would result from its understated wit: a ripple of laughter rather than a stomp of excitement. Less satisfying, perhaps. Besides, if the Stravinsky came last, the Ravel would have to come second, to avoid having two 3-movement works in a row. Then we'd have Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky; and the splashy Ravel might make the Schoenberg sound sketchy instead of intense.

So the program falls into place. The healing effect of the Ravel's opening, after the trauma of the Schoenberg, confirms this as the right order, at least for the way I feel about these pieces now. Emotionally the sequence makes sense, and the juxtapositions heighten the character of each piece. The Debussy appears invitingly out of the silence preceding, and the Ravel joins naturally to the applause following. (And on this CD, I have felt that the entire program works well after the Prokofiev.)

This work of program-building, like interpretation—like writing programs notes, for that matter—is at bottom just a way of attending more deeply to the art of the master composers, expressing our regard for them and becoming ever more intimate with their work. Seen in the proper light, all of these activities are, as everything in music should be, elaborations of love.

—James Boyk

 

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