This remarkable disc aptly demonstrates two sides of the French master: taking the tedium of art to a higher than ever level (Études), celebrating young life with fun, nuance and verve (Children’s Corner).
Études Book I
The homage to Czerny, “pour less ‘cinq doigts’” is a wonderful realization of dull as ditchwater exercises that soon evolve into magical, at times saucy excursions, replete with delightful harmonic changes.
Throughout, Aleck Karis produces lovely textures and tones, expertly voiced even as a hint of Gershwin (before or after: who knows?) adds extra spice.
“pour les Tierces” features superb legato lines deftly balanced by staccati—appropriately rhapsodic, coupled with fine attention to detail.
The third study, “pour les Quartes” is decidedly more Eastern/exotique, filled with always moving push-and-pull, thoughtfully, at times moodily, presented.
“pour les Sixtes” is remarkable as Karis ensures that every bar moves the ear constantly forward.
The fifth time out (“pour les Octaves”), listeners should just enjoy the ride, wherever it takes them!
Book I comes to a resounding conclusion with a virtual perpetuum mobile and a deliberately understated finish. Taken together the first six studies beg the question: Can all students achieve this level of excellence?”
Études Book II
Knowing that world of 1914 was turning uglier every minute and his own time on the planet was at risk, Debussy’s second set is an incredible testament to the composer who having been forced to remain silent for a year (health issues) roared back with a mighty hurrah. Nietzsche’s Superman indeed: create or die!
“pour les degrés chromatiques” lives up to its chromatic billing but displays moments of impishness and jazziness which Karis readily blends into a convincing whole with his deceptively seamless delivery. The coda defines “cool”.
At last, the composer’s legendary impressionistic approach takes hold in “pour les agréments”. Here, the music is marvellously reflective, searingly melodic and artful (feeling as if both artists are in search of themselves). An occasional Holst-like colourization coupled with subtle harmonic shifts readily reinforce the magnificently crafted structure.
With “pour les notes réptées”, the notion of “say it again” takes on new, vivid life. The numerous stops and starts, peppered with touches of “sauce” leave the ear always engaged; employing one of Haydn’s best “less is more” techniques (silence) is the musical icing on this wonderfully studious cake.
Tolling bells and dark pedals add much to the hue of “pour les sonorités opposées”. In Karis’ hands, it becomes a thoughtful impassioned essay, replete with telling a few secrets. The unison most certainly provides balance to all before and after. The moments of hope (L’istesso tempo) are as welcome as the armistice, still years away.
“pour les Arpèges composés” (perhaps a veiled homage to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas—cross-reference below) is an intriguing combination of “delicatiso” and rhapsodic lines. Thank goodness for the bit of balancing fun and a reluctant adieu that is completely understandable.
Somewhere, Schumann is smiling at the tenor, tone and construction of the final “pour les accords”. The beguiling contrasts and steadfast delivery bring these studies to a most convincing conclusion. How many other “students” dare take on these incredible learning experiences?
In a mere 17 and a half minutes, Debussy reveals his inner child while giving his daughter a present for the centuries. Now, in the 21st century, this sort of music and what drives it (love, apparent simplicity, fun, precociousness, beauty…) is needed like never before. With my own “children” (not just family; some relationships are complex) about to happily descend for the holiday season, I can only wish that all of them had “danced” to Golliwogg’s Cakewalk et al.
Karis gets all of this and more: it’s a performance to revel with, ponder and share. Sadly, those who need to hear and understand this extensive homage to innocence never will, much to the detriment of those in their care who are too often swept aside for the greater good. JWR