Recording sessions are not usually open to the public, but many performers prefer the energy of playing before a live audience, especially when the music they’re recording is compelling and driven.
On Tuesday night, Ukrainian pianist Yegor Shevtsov welcomed a crowd at EMPAC to hear him perform two pieces by Pierre Boulez and one by Claude Debussy for a disc that’s scheduled for a spring release.
The connection between these French composers, one who died in 1918 and the other who is still active and alive at age 87, was fascinating. Debussy was a great experimenter who threw out conventional ideas of harmony to create his own. Boulez, too, began composing works with 12-tone technique but evolved into serial music.
By sandwiching Debussy’s Études (1915) between Boulez’s “Une page d’éphéméride” (2005) and his “Incises” (1994/2001), Shevtsov showed how Boulez followed Debussy’s lead in blurring tones, the use of gesture, the exploration of an idea for its own sake, the use of silence.
It helped that Shevtsov has a real feel for both composers’ music. His technique was brilliant — both composers wrote sometimes impossibly difficult music; his use of the pedal was just right, and he was able to find the melodic beauty when it was apparent. Most impressively, he memorized not only the Debussy but the “Incises” — an accomplishment in itself.
It’s not often an audience gets to hear Boulez’s music. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was everywhere, even as Boulez himself was very visible. As the music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s and later, when he founded the Ensemble InterContemporain in 1976 in Paris — a composer’s orchestra — Boulez and his work was in the forefront of new music. Today’s new music, which often depends on electronics and sound effects, seems to have no connection, so hearing these two Boulez works, one as recent as seven years ago, was bracing.
In both works, Boulez used short motifs often worked with both hands close together in frenetic speeds and done over a wide spatial area. There were also clusters of tones that were sustained and blurred by the pedal to create a mystical effect. Shevtsov was intense and focused.
In the Debussy, each of the six etudes focused on some aspect of piano playing: arpeggios, chords, repeated notes or chromatic scales. These were done in a wide range of palettes, some dreamy, others more declamatory, and none with any tonal center. It was almost quaint when one ended in a major arpeggio. All of them created their own atmosphere.
The main difference between the two composers is that Debussy’s Études were decidedly sunnier, with a lighter color palette. Boulez’s music was darker, edgier, very intense with angst and even a bleak concern.
Shetsov gave each due respect, and the crowd appreciated his efforts with enthusiastic applause.