This week theBBC National Orchestra of Wales has been tackling Debussy's Images with associate guest conductor, François-Xavier Roth. Now, I have always had a bit of a problem with Debussy. I know his music is very lovely, and very exotic sounding, and all the other words that we are taught should be used when discussing Monsieur Debussy's works, but I have always found it a little hard to get into.
I like the big gestures of Mahler, the rawness of Shostakovich, the unabashed heart on sleeve writing of Tchaikovsky, and for me, Debussy's music has always seemed a little too intangible, a little too diaphanous. I often find myself a little overwhelmed by what can sound like a wall of sound, an orchestral wash of colours.
Approaching Images this week has been something of a revelation for me. François has an amazing way of breaking the music down so that you can hear all the layers of the music (and being Debussy, the layers are many), building it up bit by bit to create the whole picture.
This is so helpful, as it means you understand exactly where your line fits in and your ear learns what it can latch on to. The end result is that, rather than being a wishy-washy, airy-fairy, sensuous melee of Frenchness, the music can blossom forth with all the subtlety and nuances needed to make this style of music successful.
Debussy's scores are always so explicitly marked. In one bar of four notes, you can often have four different articulation marks over each individual note. It can often feel like information overload, and there can be the temptation to gloss over some of the details. The problem with that is, while you will still get the general gist of what it sounds like, you miss the crucial details that give the music its character, and you can also adulterate what the music is really supposed to be saying.
Glossing over is strictly prohibited in François' rehearsals. Any attempts to do so are normally met with "Ah, my very dears, do you not see in your score that this is different from the note that came before? Why you no play this?"
I guess the thing with Debussy's music is that it is a subtler style of writing than the music of the German romantics whose music I love so much, or the Russians whose music thrills my mind. With Debussy, the devil really is in the detail, and I think this is the first time I've really full grasped that. I have found myself really challenged to capture every nuance in the score, and, as a result, am enjoying Images in a way that I have never enjoyed playing Debussy before. I can honestly say I get it now.
My goodness, it is hard work though. My brain feels full up. I feel slightly cross eyed, slightly overwrought, I definitely have a slightly furrowed brow and I could do with a coffee!
The orchestra performs Debussy's Images at Cardiff's St David's Hall on Friday, and Swansea's Brangwyn Hall on Saturday. For tickets and more information, call 0800 052 1812.