The UCSB Department of Music will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) with a dual and solo piano recital of his works by the brilliant faculty pianist Natasha Kislenko and a special guest artist, the Italian virtuoso Sergio De Simone.
“Piano Masterpieces of Claude Debussy” will take place at 8 p.m. Friday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall (Music Building, UCSB campus).
The program for this recital will consist of both well-known and relatively obscure solo and dual piano works by the French master, including the Suite Bergamasque, Estampes, En Blanc et Noir and Epigraphes Antiques.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a rich German music lover with a mechanical aptitude and a large comfy castle on the Rhine — Edwin Welte by name — invented a device that recorded each note played on a piano with a drop of mercury precisely applied to a paper roll. When the pianist had played the entire composition, the roll was put into a “Vorsetzer” — literally, a “sitter-in-front-of” — with 88 felt-covered fingers, which would then be placed in front of a piano keyboard where it would play, with uncanny fidelity, the piece performed by the human pianist, with every nuance and eccentricity of the original performance.
The resulting rolls were superior not only to the traditional piano rolls, which recorded the notes only by punching holes in the paper roll that was then put into a special piano that reproduced even Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven as if they were honky-tonk, tiny and mechanical, but also far superior to the acoustically recorded disks and cylinders, crackly and distant, that were just coming on the market.
Welte invited all of the great composers and pianists of his day to his castle and gave them room and board so that they could make recordings, when they felt like it. Most — Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Ferruccio Busoni, Enrique Granados, etc. — were only too happy to come and live like nobility while they made themselves immortal with Welte’s device.
When these rolls were rediscovered after World War II, and a rebuilt Vorsetzer was used to make modern hi-fi recordings, the world’s music lovers experienced a kind of disorienting time warp — familiar works, when played by the person who had composed them, often sounded like the work of a different composer, or sounded like they were being played wrong.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Debussy. It is this: Debussy made many Welte rolls, and these recordings are now available on numerous CDs. The shock of hearing Debussy play his own works is very great, because most of the time they sound more like Frédéric Chopin. We expect certain things of an “Impressionist” artist — vagueness, insubstantiality, ambivalance — but Debussy makes his music sound quite definite, solid and well-within the music of an older, 19th century tradition.
Interestingly, very few pianists have revised their playing of Debussy to put it in harmony with his own playing. The old newspaper maxim was when the facts contradict the legend, print the legend, so maybe that is what is going on.
Tickets to “Piano Masterpieces of Claude Debussy” are $15 for the general public and $7 for students, and will be available at the door.