Sunday, 23 February 2014

Irene Scharrer: Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ and ‘Poissons d’or’

Claude Debussy wrote his first set of Images in 1905 with the second set following in 1907. Set 1 included ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, ‘Hommage à Rameau’ and ‘Mouvement’ whilst Set 2 consisted of ‘Cloche à travers les feuilles’, ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ and ‘Poissons d’or’. 
Irene Scharrer recorded Debussy’s ‘Reflet dans l’eau’ and ‘Poissons d’Or’ on 4 March 1924 for the 12” HMV Black Label D914 priced 6/6d (33p). I gave a brief overview of Scharrer’s’ life in a previous posting.
‘Reflets dans l’eau’ has been described by Alfred Cortot have having ‘delicious transparency of chords and florid arpeggios.’ Maurice Hinson writes that this piece requires ‘complete facility’ to express the ‘cascading arpeggios and sweeping figurations.’  Also required is a delicate touch and careful timing.
‘Poissons d’or’ was inspired by a piece of oriental lacquer work in which the composer has provided a ‘glorified description of the scintillating movements of the art-work’s living models. It is in reality a procession of goldfish, captured in the form of a set of variations. Cortot has written that this work ‘which, in the trembling if running water of the lively and clear virtuosity, give the dazzling flight of a gleam – a reflection, then another – a quivering and capricious life, which now hides, now bounds forth, captivated by sorcery and music’.  Hinson notes the ‘floating melodies in thirds, fluid arpeggios and delicate pp passages.’

The Gramophone reviewer writes rather disingenuously that ‘Reflets’ ‘seems to be merely good Sydney Smith’. Smith (1839-1889) was an English composer and pianist living in Victorian England.  Many of his works involve cascades of notes suggesting fountains and torrents, for example, ‘Ripples on the Lake’ and ‘Le jet d’eau’.  However to equate the subtlety of Debussy with this largely sub-Liszt pianism is rather unfair. The reviewer considers that Maurice Ravel is just as unsuccessful with his ‘Jeux d’eau’ and that ‘water is evidently not strong enough vintage for these composers.’  However he regarded ‘Poissons d’or’ has having a ‘strange fascination’ and wondered if Debussy ‘wished to suggest the glitter and waggling tales of these little fishes.’ He states that the piano tone and interpretation are ‘fairly good.’
Listening to Irene Scharrer’s recording today is interesting. Her version of ‘Reflets d’eau’ is nearly a minute shorter than François Joel-Thiollier on Naxos. ‘Poissons’ is only 15 seconds less. I wonder if she paced the former work to fit it onto one side of a 78rpm disc.
Whatever the reason, Scharrer brings a magic to these two pieces that are not diminished by the relatively poor sound quality of these transfers.  This is not a criticism of APR records, however they are the best part of ninety years old.
In 2012 APR records released The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings of Irene Scharrer. Both these pieces are presented on CD2 of this set.

Irene Scharrer playing Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and Poissons d’or can be heard on YouTube. 

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