Claude Debussy died of cancer, age 55, 100 years ago March 25, as German artillery and aircraft hammered Paris during the First World War. The legacy of one of the greatest and most influential French composers is being celebrated around the world this year with performances, recordings, broadcasts and symposiums. In Washington, the centennial was marked at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday afternoon with a concert devoted to Debussy’s piano music by the elegant Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo.
Lupo has two key attributes shared by outstanding Debussy interpreters: a seemingly infinite variety of touch and dynamics and a full to overflowing imagination. These, coupled with an infallible Italian instinct for the perfectly balanced singing line, are what make Lupo’s Debussy both authoritative and compelling.
Following “Images oubliées,” a suite published in 1977, came a richly atmospheric reading of “Estampes.” “La soirée dans Grenade” stood out for its almost cinematic evocation of the swelteringly sensual nights of southern Spain, while “Jardins sous la pluie” exhibited Lupo’s uncommonly fine ear for detail.
Intermission was flanked by the first and second books of “Images.” “Hommage à Rameau,” Debussy’s monument to his 18th-century predecessor, spoke movingly with an almost unbearable yearning for a better past. Both “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut,” abundant with sensitively voiced chords, and “Cloches à travers le feuilles” showcased Lupo’s uncanny ability to suggest discrete planes of aural activity simultaneously.
The concert ended with “L’isle joyeuse” in a performance as conceptually original as it was viscerally exciting. Lupo’s interpretations, free of anything predictable or routine, are entirely his own, thoughtful and fresh. Throughout, the audience listened in that rapt silence reserved for the best music-making.