Acclaimed French pianist Pascal Rogé gave a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall on Monday featuring works by three towering figures of French piano music – Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. The hour-long concert afforded the audience a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the most wondrous pianism, from the graceful, subtly nuanced soundworld of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque to Ravel’s glittering Sonatine and closing with Poulenc’s vivid and characterful Les soirées de Nazelles.
Parisian-born Rogé has a deep affinity with these composers, with countless celebrated performances and an impressive discography. I have enjoyed Rogé’s pianism on disc and have for a long time wanted to hear him live.
Debussy’s Suite bergamasque was written in 1890 and owes much to the poet Paul Verlaine and his Fêtes galantes.Verlaine in turn was inspired by the painter Watteau, whose works evoked the elegant and frivolous pleasures of eighteenth-century French society, and his poems – and Debussy’s Suite – also draw inspiration from the Italian Comedia del’arte.
Debussy’s writing is subtle and elusive in rhythm and harmony, with an undercurrent of sadness and poignancy which runs through the four movements. Roge’s lucid playing highlighted many of the details, layers and nuances in the music which other performers may overlook, too keen to emphasise the “impressionistic” nature of Debussy’s writing (a term which the composer himself despised). There was vibrancy too, in the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Passepied’, emphasised by sensitive pedalling and a clear sense of line. No muddy soundwashes here, ‘Clair de Lune’ seemed to float, suspended and shimmering, yet with a gorgeous clarity too.
When Ravel composed his Sonatine he had already completed Jeux d’Eau, an inspired addition to the impressionist repertoire of the piano, and it seemed unlikely he would turn back to a classical antecedent. However, he was tempted by a competition for the first movement of a sonatina: as it turned out, he was the only entrant. The delicate figurations, which act as an accompaniment (together with the bass line) in the first movement, clearly show the influence of the “running water” arpeggiated figures of Jeux d’Eau.
As in the Debussy, so in Ravel Rogé displayed remarkable precision combined with sensitivity in touch, articulation, tonal shading, phrasing and voicing, all coupled with an astonishing control of the piano which results in the most delicious, sparkling palette of sounds and colours. His magical sense of timing and spare rubato in the opening movement was, for me, one of the most wondrous moments in the entire recital.
In contrast to the intricate traceries of Ravel and Debussy’s kaleidoscopic soundworld, Poulenc’s Les Soirées des Nazelles was bold and spirited, full of improvisatory passages and rapid shifts of mood, dynamic and tempo. Rogé gave a rich and full-blooded performance, which really brought the virtuosic nature of this suite to life.
Satie’s rarely heard Gnossienne No. 5 was the encore – voluptuous in tone, simple and tasteful, a delight!
(picture credit: Mary Robert)