Debussy: ‘Mouvement’ (‘Images’ Book 1)  [3’40”]

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano

21 Léon Bonnat - Emma Debussy

Emma Bardac: lover of Fauré, wife of Debussy — though not at the same time

A beautiful name for a beautiful artist of the keyboard: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, teacher of Pollini (Track 15) and likewise prey to trial by stereotype, a key word in each case being ‘aristocratic’.  This track comes from his marvellous recording of Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) two sets of three Images pour piano (1905 and 1907).  A third set of Images from the same period, conceived originally for two pianos, wound up as a tripartite orchestral work.  The present Mouvement, which Debussy illuminatingly asks to be played “with a fantastical but precise lightness”, is a model of awesome power narrowly confined.  A passage like the broadening, circling then coruscating one between 0’52” and 0’57”, in which the power is given release for a brief moment, is quite overwhelming in Michelangeli’s fabulous performance.  Debussy famously dreamed of a piano without hammers, and in this piece, performed like this, it’s difficult to believe we are dealing with pieces of wood striking steel, so vivid is the impression of a living organism, or at least, in the description applied by Debussy authority Robert Schmitz in his insightful book on the piano music, “of a delicate wheel running at velocity, repulsing and then again attracting strange harmonic elements as though these were microscopic animalcules, at times absorbed by the irresistible centrifugal force of gyration”.

The piece is another ternary form (B at 1’12”, return to A at 2’13”), but the same motion is sustained throughout and seems unstoppable – until at the end the wheel, or whatever, is simply turned off as if at the mains.  But for all the restless movement of the title there is paradoxically a feeling, perceived by more than one commentator, of stasis, just as the unimaginably rapid flapping of the hummingbird‘s wings serves to keep it hovering still in the air.  We could analyse this, see how the trick is worked – or we could heed Debussy, who while a student defended his harmonic practice against a critical teacher by saying: “There is no theory.  You have only to listen.  Pleasure is the law.”

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