Claude Debussy
(Hsia-Jung Chang)

Claude Debussy

Mandala 06
Duration: 60:54

This is – in the best sense of the word – not a modern recording. I have in my collection a good number of CD transfers of recordings by legendary pianists of old, like Moriz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman and Josef Hofmann - to name but a few -, and although the music on these old 78s inevitably suffer from the limited medium of its time, as well as the simple recording equipment available to the studios of the early 20th century and perhaps oftentimes also from the wear and tear of the surviving records used for the transfers, I still, many times, get more listening pleasure out of those than of many a modern recording.
When I listen to Hsia-Jung Chang’s excellent new Debussy CD, I think I understand why that is; why I often enjoy old transfers of 78s more than the super-sounding new productions. It is because of the room, the ambience. I’m sure this wasn’t intended in the old recordings, but there just was no way of taking the room out of the recording; especially if one did chose to put the microphones some distance from the instrument. The ambience isn’t overly obvious on old recordings; in fact, it’s rather short and folded in under itself, but it is there, and you get a sounding space – a room, a hall – with the music. If you listen to new recordings of the same music, you sometimes get music that is perfectly executed and perfectly recorded, but which isn’t anywhere; it just exists in the listening moment, without references to place or time, like sounds in a perfect vacuum, were that possible… but, as the saying goes, “no one hears you scream in space”

Hsia-Jung has recorded a choice set of Debussy compositions at The Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York City, and luck or skill has it that the engineer and also producer Hsi-Ling Chang has not tried to hide the room in which the music sounds. Accordingly, you get a space with the music, and it is this quality of this new recording of old music that has it, in my mind and soul, appear at the same level of musical pleasure as the recordings of the legends I mentioned above. The music is alive in a way that you seldom hear on clinically clean new recordings, which, if they have a noticeable ambience, have added that ambience synthetically.

To me, the way Hsia-Jung’s new Debussy CD is recorded, it makes me feel architecture too, and the smell of wood and chairs, and floors with the marks of decades of shuffling feet, and I see the light falling through high windows. In other words, I get a totality, an incorporation of the world, and of centuries; time and place. This makes me relaxed and attentive, and the music of Debussy gets maximum access to me, handles me with love and care, like someone taking my hand, guiding me through a hall with masterly paintings along the walls; paintings that, in themselves, are windows onto other worlds, other times.

I take the time to go back and look over other reviews I’ve done of earlier Hsia-Jung Chang recordings, and to my surprise (I didn’t recall that right off) I have shown similar sentiments about those recordings, about the general, historical sound of them. Of course, this shows that Hsia-Jung Chang has stuck with a winning concept, and since that concept is a rare one these days, I can only congratulate her on her decision. I never tire of listening!

Hsia-Jung Chang in the CD cover:

“Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi spoke of the music of nature as the ultimate music. It surrounds us daily, unheard in the modern world of countless manmade distractions. Only the few who have opened their minds beyond the limits of the mundane can know the joy of listening to the music of nature, to which manmade music pales by comparison. French composer Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was gifted with the ability to hear this ultimate music. The listener in turn is gifted through Debussy ‘s music, as the composer also had the uncanny ability to reflect the music of nature in his compositions.
As a young man Debussy complained that the music being composed around him ‘smelled of the lamp, not of the sun’ her looked for ways of distancing himself from the musical trends of his day. In his earlier works, such as the Suite bergamasque, Debussy used dance titles and modes borrowed from the distant past. These influences continue into his later works: the Sarabande of Hommage à Rameau, and the quasi-medieval modality in La fille aux chevaux de lin. However, it was Debussy’s uncommon sensitivity to the myriad of environmental sounds, which became the key development of his unique musical language. In an interview from 1910 he states: ‘All the noises we hear around ourselves can be re-created. Every sound perceived by the acute ear in the rhythm of the world about us can be represented musically. Some people above all wish to conform to the rules; for myself I wish to render only what I hear’
The two books of Images contain sound images of wind, water, trees, the moon, and the play of goldfish. Here the pianist encounters painstakingly measured, subtle changes in tempo, along with uncomfortably long moments of stillness and silence, as ways of reflecting the seemingly random rhythms of moving air and water. Tone clusters and polytonality recreate the complex harmonics of bell sounds traveling through the leaves. Two hands distributed across three or four registers on the piano, with each register assigned its own articulation and dynamic intensity, simulate the simultaneity of events in the surrounding nature. Through these means Debussy disengages the listener’s expectations of traditional rhythms, tonality and musical textures, and engages the senses that lie beyond the jurisdiction of the intellect. Listening to Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is as passive an act as counting the waves by the ocean, or watching clouds morph. One is forced to give up expectations and to surrender to the wash of sounds and the spontaneous flurry of movements. Perhaps this surrender is the joy of which Zhuangzi spoke”

These are the Debussy pieces that Hsia-Jung Chang performs on this CD:

1. Rêverie (1890) 4:07
2. Arabesque I (1888) 3:44
3. Arabesque II (1888) 3:30

Suite bergmasque (1890 – 1905)
4. Prélude 4:06
5. Menuet 4:06
6. Clair de lune 4:58
7. Passepied 3:42

Images (1905)
8. Reflets dans l’eau 5:25
9. Hommage à Rameau 6:08
10. Mouvement 3.29

Images II (1907)
11. Cloches à travers les feuilles 4:09
12. Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut 5:10
13. Poissons d’or 3:53

14. La fille aux cheveux de lin (1910) 2:32