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Thomas Otten, chair of the piano division in the UNC Department of Music, said he wanted to program works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in Hill Hall to show both their diversity as well as the composer’s development over time. According to Frank Dawes in Debussy Piano Music, Debussy is “one of the select body of composers who have enlarged the piano repertoire not merely in the quantitative sense…but in the sense of adding a new dimension to it.” Debussy’s new techniques “grew out of his highly original and personal attitudes to chords and harmony.” His harmony often has shifting, transient clouds of sound “with chords melting and merging into each other, disappearing and regrouping in endlessly subtle ways” and associated with a new approach to the use of the pedals.
"Rĕverie," which opened Otten’s recital, features ambiguous tonality. It was published in 1890 at which time Debussy chided his publisher for bringing it out because “I wrote it in a hurry years ago, purely for material consideration.” The tonal suspense is suggestive of a mind lost in its thoughts. Otten preceded playing each set with brief germane comments from the stage.
Two selections from Children’s Corner (1906-08) came next. These were composed for Debussy’s beloved daughter Chouchou and the use of English titles is a conceit to her having an English governess. “The Snow is Dancing” has an atmosphere of “refined, deep melancholy” while its layering of sound reflects the composer’s fascination with gamelan music. His daughter’s doll was called a golliwogg, a blackfaced doll popular at English beaches in the 1890s. “Golliwogg’s cake-walk” is one of Debussy’s most humorous works and its rhythm is based on Southern U.S. minstrel show dance antecedent to jazz.
Three selections from Images, Book II (1907) came next. No. 1 “Cloches á travers les feuilles” (Bells across the leaves) was described by E. Lockspeiser as “a study in the contrasts of clear and muffled sonorities.” The opening is made up wholly out of the whole-tone scale. Gamelan effects and modal treatment of its melody are features of No. 2 “Et le lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (And the moon descends on the temple that was). The flamboyant No. 3 “Poissons d’or” (Goldfish) may have been inspired by golden fish on Chinese lacquer. An abundance of trills and tremolos evoke rippling water and fluttering fins.
After intermission the concert resumed with two selections from late Debussy, Études, Book II (1914). No. 11 “Pour les Arpèges composes” (For composite arpeggios). Slower-moving broken chords have a lovely liquid effect while more rapid arpeggios can create a fine lacy effect. While No. 9 “Pour les notes répétées” (For repeated notes) is “a searching test in rapid-repetition,” it is an enchanting fantasy.
The formal concert ended with four selections from Préludes, Book II (1913). No. 3 “La Puerta del vino” (The gate of wine) was inspired by a postcard sent to the composer by Manuel de Falla showing a gate of the Alhambra in Granada. It features bitonality and opens with the left hand’s D flat major ostinato set against the right hand’s Moorish scale centered on E major. No. 8 “Ondine” is about a soul-less water nymph who needs to take the soul from a mortal. Water imagery is suggestive of the “Jeux de vagues” (Play of Waves) from Debussy’s La Mer. Debussy’s take on Lisztian pyrotechnics, “Feux d’artifices” (Fireworks), features “close finger patterns with sudden leaps to remote parts of the keyboard.” Highlights included rapid compound trills with interlocking hands, bravura octaves, great pounding chords all over the keyboard, and not least a great double glissando in both black and white keys simultaneously.
Otten’s quiver of virtuoso technique seemed bottomless. Fast passages were meticulously clear and precise. The most hushed pp passages seemed to float magically while there was no want of power in the loudest passages. His broad palette of tonal color was perfect for Debussy. His solid technique was guided by a marvelous sense of style and a depth of musicianship. His performance of “Feux d’artifices” made full use of opportunities for showmanship. This was a wonderful concert to satisfy the appetite of every Francophile.
A prolonged and well-earned standing ovation was rewarded by Otten’s lovely performance of one of Debussy’s most popular works, “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair) from Préludes, Book I (1907).