REVIEW by Michael Johnson – Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One. But I was engulfed by the variety and the sheer freshness of the sound created by this most original of French composers, and never flagged.

Daniel Barenboim by Michael Johnson

And under the hands of conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, playing his new custom-built grand, the music climaxed with the full house at the Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux standing, cheering and doing the European rhythmic-clapping ritual. Marc Minkowski, directeur général of the Opéra National de Bordeaux Aquitaine, appeared onstage to present not the traditional bouquet of flowers but a bottle of fine Bordeaux rouge. Barenboim broke out of his stiff stage comportment and pretended to look for a corkscrew.

Playing in Bordeaux is not an obvious choice for a musician of Barenboim’s stature but he made the detour at the behest of his wife, Elena Bashkirova, who had performed here at a piano festival two years ago. As it turned out, his recital was included in a nine-stop tour of Europe in January coordinated with the release his new Debussy CD of Debussy works, some of which he performed in Bordeaux.

Barenboim is known for his bumptious personality and sense of humor but solo piano performances take him to another place. He seemed remote from the audience and on occasion had trouble keeping up with the complex rhythms and trills demanded by Debussy and other technical lapses. He had just turned 75, an age at which articulation might begin to slip.

Further, he was plainly annoyed by the unrestrained winter-time coughing, hacking and sneezing from the audience, and between a couple of the Préludes whipped out his handkerchief and demonstrated how one can cough without rattling the chandeliers. The audience tittered nervously.

But Barenboim is a confirmed Debussiste, and calls him “one of the most original composers of all time”. In this five-minute talk, with keyboard examples, he explains where this originality springs from:

The Bordeaux program was neatly divided in two parts, beginning with the Préludes, a kaleidoscope of colors that shimmer regardless of how many times one might have heard these standard minatures. His rendering of Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest and the Cathédral engloutie particularly brought out the magic of his new piano.

After the interval, he did the three pieces from Estampes — Pagodes, La Soirée dans Granade, and Jardins sous la pluie. Les deux arabesques followed, again showing what his piano can do.

But it was the finale, l’Isle joyeuse, that exploded the power of the straight-stringed piano and portrayed the passionate love he experienced on the island of Jersey in the company of his future wife Emma Bardac. Of all the recordings out there, I nominate Alicia de Larrocha’s version over those by Pollini, Richter, Horowitz, Weissenberg and even Barenboim.

Debussy wrote in 1904 that he felt he had achieved a convergence of the piano’s “power and grace” but, he added, “My Lord, it’s difficult to play.” Barenboim threw himself into the tumult and delighted the Bordeaux audience.