Yann Ollivier: Dear Robert, dear Nicolas, I think we should begin at the beginning. Could you tell us when and how you met first?
Robert Orledge: We met as a result of my complete revised edition of the piano works of Erik Satie for Salabert in Milan in 2014.
Nicolas Horvath: Yes, I contacted Robert to perfect my Satie knowledge. I was working on this music, and when I compared biographies, I was really puzzled to discover that Satie’s music had three completely different chronological periods! Robert’s book, Satie the Composer, was by far the most precise (with manuscript references and many unknown pieces), so I knew he would have the answer!
RO: Nicolas has recorded all of these pieces gradually for Grand Piano. We have now got as far as 1912 and there are at least three more albums to come over the next year or so. And they also contain new or unknown pieces.
NH: More than simply music, for years we also engaged in an enlightening e-mail correspondence. What I like with Robert is that he never insisted or tried to impose his own vision on me. In each of our mutual releases, we worked as a duo. From the text, its presentation, the artwork and even the artwork choice. He is always patient with all my crazy ideas and concepts, as I was always trying to create ‘the perfect booklet’ – a real musical companion that would enlighten the listener. We worked very hard together to try to make things as deep and precise as possible. We even made some Satie discoveries! Robert had worked very hard to correct Satie’s music from all its mistakes. I saw that Robert was really the Satie specialist, and I was very surprised when he told me that his musical first love was Debussy, and more than that, that he also did the same kind of work for his music! I really could not wait to receive those unknown Debussy scores!
RO: Yes, I also told Nicolas that I had some Debussy completions that would make another fascinating album and he kindly agreed to record them after he had played them in recitals across France and they had been well received.
YO: Nicolas, you told me this was a long-range project for you. Can you tell us more?
NH: As a teenager, I was not so close to Debussy’s music. Appreciating and loving it is really linked to my own pianistic maturity. Previously, I was more into Liszt and Scriabin: I was always looking for big chords and big sounds. In my thirties, when I started to work in parallel with great maestros, I followed and participated in enlightening Debussy masterclasses by Éric Heidsieck and Philippe Entremont. Even if Gabriel Tacchino gave good advice for Debussy’s music, my own vision is really a fusion of Éric’s lyrical world – full of legends and stories and warm sounds, balanced with Philippe’s preciseness with every single detail – to faithfully balance each rhythmic pattern and carefully place each note within its larger global form. I still remember Philippe’s outburst when I told him that my first solo recording would be of music by Liszt, as he really wanted me to start my recording career with the Debussy Études! But, indeed, you are right, this project with Robert was in evolution for half a decade.
YO: You told me that at the beginning, the repertoire was about 30 minutes long, and that you ended up with an album of over 70 minutes. How did it evolve?
NH: In 2014, Robert was still sending scores via regular mail. My surprise became amazement when he sent me the additional scores (I still remember the huge letter containing La Chute de la Maison Usher, Toomai des éléphants, Petite Valse, Fêtes Galantes, La Passion, No-ja-li and Prélude de Tristan). It was not only ‘little forgotten pieces’ but real masterworks! Their total duration was around 30 minutes. So, to complete a possible album, we first decided to add Debussy’s lesser-known works such as Khamma, Le Vêtement du Blessé, Élégie, Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, Berceuse héroïque, Six Épigraphes antiques, the Morceau de Concours and the 13th Étude (that so few pianists play). The album was then called Forgotten and Rare Debussy Piano Works and Naxos was immediately interested in it.
YO: Yet this was not the final programme you proposed…
NH: One day, I came across a strange Gieseking piano roll video where he performed something he never recorded on disc: the Prélude de la Damoiselle élue. I was surprised and ordered the score that was available from Durand. I shared it with Robert, who of course knew the score, and told him that I suspected there were mistakes (as frequently happens). This Damoiselle élue prelude originated from the ‘working version’ of the vocal score and Robert made it into a more playable solo version rather than just a piano reduction.
RO: In contrast to operas, ballets and works for violin and orchestra, there were relatively few solo piano pieces left unfinished by Debussy, so Nicolas and I decided to include some piano reductions of theatrical pieces as well, just as Debussy had made solo piano reductions of his completed ballets such as Jeux and Khamma in 1912–13.
NH: We studied other Debussy lyrical pieces to see if other solo pieces were viable. We kept in mind that the pieces should be for orchestra – without voices – and that they should be self-contained. Two pieces were eligible: the preludes to L’Enfant prodigue and Rodrigue et Chimène (though this needed a minor adjustment at the end by Robert). And during our exchange, Robert also shared with me other smaller pieces he had discovered: Les Septièmes regrettent!, a first version of the start of Bruyères, a strange opening to La Fille aux cheveux de lin in a completely different key, and two Le Roi Lear completions that Robert made for Durand Complete Edition in 2006 (a different Fanfare to the one everyone plays, and the beautiful threnody for La Mort de Cordélia). On the same volume, I included a piece that Robert wrote specially for me based on Debussy’s sketches for Le Diable dans le beffroi, in which I spent a day with the Devil himself, and a completion of the surviving fragments from the Prelude to Le Roi Lear. With all this material, it was not necessary to add the Debussy ‘lesser-known’ pieces! And the album title simply became: Debussy Forgotten Piano Works. Robert was so impressed and pleased that I had performed his completions so many times in public (I had a small selection with the Petite Valse, La Damoiselle élue, L’Enfant prodigue and La Chute de la Maison Usher that I played almost everywhere) that he was inspired to complete works that he had had in mind for some while, hence Le Roi Lear Prélude and Le Diable dans le beffroi piano versions.
YO: But Robert, I think you first worked on orchestral and especially operatic pieces of Debussy. Did your research on piano works come after or did everything happen at the same time?
RO: I began by completing and orchestrating Debussy’s Poe opera The Fall of the House of Usher in 2001–04, followed by the Chinese ballet No-ja-li ou Le Palais du silence. Both of these were successfully performed in 2006 (at the Bregenz Opera Festival and in Los Angeles respectively) and from then on I gradually worked on each of Debussy’s unfinished projects until I came to the end of them in 2015. I worked on the pieces in order both of interest to me and the quantity of sketches that Debussy had left for them.
YO: What is the part of research and the part of choice in this album?
RO: Every Debussy project begins with research. Finding and identifying all the sketches Debussy made for his works and then making sure that they are in the right order. Sometimes he wrote the start of a work and then abandoned it (as in his cantata La Saulaie) and sometimes he jumped from one idea to another that interested him more from later in the scenario (as in No-ja-li where there are a lot of short sketches from 1914 but a lot of gaps between them).
YO: Debussy often used to start his operatic projects with a piano or piano/voice version, after which they were finally orchestrated by Debussy himself or by Caplet or others. So, how did you complete the score for Usher?
RO: Debussy set all of Scene 1 and most of the final melodrama and my role, broadly speaking, was to join the two parts together using Debussy’s libretto and his many sketches. After studying these, I realised that there was less to invent than I thought and by transforming his ideas to suit the developing dramatic situation (as he does with Mélisande’s motif in Pelléas) I was able to complete the opera in around two years. First, I made a vocal score and later I orchestrated this, and finally I took some of the best passages and joined them together into a piano piece – A Night in the House of Usher.
YO: Is your involvement different from piece to piece?
RO: Yes, they range from some improvements in reductions made by others (including Debussy) to the fantasy on the Poe opera Le Diable dans le beffroi which presents a condensed version of the main musical ideas in the opera. This is made comprehensible for the listener through a narrator (just as Debussy chose to do in his ballet No-ja-li in 1914). This virtuosic fantasy was written specially for Nicolas in 2018 but much of it still derives from sketches made by Debussy in 1902–03.
YO: When do you consider that your reconstruction work is done or finished?
RO: I have now done all the Debussy and Satie reconstructions that I can, a project which has very happily occupied my time since I retired from University teaching in 2004. However, I do not regard any of my projects as ever completely finished and like Debussy I often retouch small details within them. In my case, especially at the starts and ends. The version of No-ja-li recorded by Nicolas actually represents the third version of the orchestral opening, which Debussy left no sketches for. But in this case, it is much better than the first, which was simply a gamelan-like prelude. The final version subtly introduces ideas that the listener should recognise later on in the ballet.
YO: So, Nicolas, you have you already performed much of this repertoire live? What has been the reaction of the public?
NH: Yes, I have played most of them already in concert. This took place during the Debussy Centenary celebrations in 2018, mostly in a tour to raise funds for Debussy’s house in Burgundy. The reaction of the public was really warm, especially for the Petite Valse and La Chute de la Maison Usher. During this tour, I had the honour to perform on Debussy’s favourite piano: a Blüthner grand with an Aliquot system. On many letters, Debussy wrote that he enjoyed the sympathetic resonance created by extra vibrating strings, especially in the piano’s upper register. But for technical reasons, it was not possible to record on this Blüthner. However, to be faithful to Debussy, I ‘recreated’ this Aliquot effect by placing a 1905 Erard concert grand next to the Steinway concert grand with microphones for both.
YO: We have on this album piano versions of early pieces of Debussy, such as Rodrigue et Chimène, alternative versions of famous works (introduction of La Fille aux cheveux de lin) and reconstructions of late works transcribed for the piano (Usher). Can we say that this album present many or all styles of Debussy, following his whole life?
RO: Yes, and chiefly in relation to Debussy’s operatic projects that were not performed in his lifetime and the differences in style that they show – from a Wagnerian style in Rodrigue et Chimène to actual bitonality in The Fall of the House of Usher.
NH: All styles, and also all moods! The piece Le Diable dans le beffroi is full of humour, a very different mood from the rest of this recording. And if you listen carefully, we have humour and … eroticism, with the music accompanying this strange story about people transported from Holland to a ‘hedonist village’ in Italy. The whole story is very visual, just like a Méliès film. And with the album finishing with both Le Diable dans le beffroi and La Chute de la Maison Usher, you have two faces of the devil: one which is very sarcastic (Le Beffroi) and one which is much more depressive with Usher.
YO: What I also love in this project is that from the first note to the last one, you feel you are listening to Debussy, and that this is Debussy’s music. But by the strange magic (of your researches and work) this is also an unknown music (except Bruyères and La Fille aux cheveux de lin). So there is a kind of fascination to discover music you do not know from an author you recognise and which you are supposed to know completely.
RO: I agree with what you say. Everything starts out with Debussy’s own sketches but sometimes they lead to quite unexpected places.
NH: This is Debussy’s magic. And Robert’s talent…