' I was furious. If I'd had a gun, he would now be in a cemetery'
For Philippe Cassard, who gives a 50th-birthday recital at the National Concert Hall on Thursday, it is nearly half a lifetime since he took the top prize at the inaugural Dublin International Piano Competition in May 1988. The programme he’s chosen for this week’s recital celebrates Debussy, whose 150th anniversary falls this year and who’s long been a Cassard speciality, and it climaxes with Liszt’s Dante Sonata.
Cassard’s first big recording project was Debussy’s solo piano music – the original label was absorbed by Universal Music, and the recordings were recently reissued as a set on Decca. And last year he released a disc of Debussy with leading French soprano Natalie Dessay that included first recordings of some unknown early songs. Cassard was bequeathed the autographs (the songs have also since been published), and these treasured possessions were the first things he wanted to show me when I arrived for our interview at his home in Vincennes outside Paris.
He played the Dante Sonata in the 1988 competition, but never got to finish it, because he ran over time. Jury chairman John O’Conor rang the notorious bell, forcing him to stop. “I couldn’t play the last three pages, which are the most difficult pages of the piece. So I was probably saved. But I was still furious. John will forever remember my look at him. If I’d had a gun, he would now be in a cemetery.”
His programme sets out to highlight connections between Debussy and Liszt, Chopin and Grieg. Debussy, he explains, “absorbed hundreds of inspirations to become Debussy, including things he hated afterwards. Wagner is the most famous example of official love and official hate.” This influence was still to be felt as late as the opera Pelléas et Mélisande.
Grieg, who Debussy put down as writing “pink bon-bons filled with snow”, played in Paris in the 1880s. And Debussy’s early Ballade of 1890 includes a section that sounds just like a Nocturne by Grieg – a Nocturne which Cassard is also going to play. And the flow goes in the other direction, too. Grieg’s Bell Ringing is a tribute to the new music that he had heard from younger composers in Paris, by Chabrier, Debussy and others.
Chopin is included not just because he was “a hero to Debussy”, but also because the Frenchman’s teacher, Madame Antoinette-Flore Mauté de Fleurville, mother-in-law of Verlaine, “was, or pretended she was, a student of Chopin”. She’s not in any official lists, but maybe she had a lesson at some stage, Cassard suggests kindly.
Either way, she would have heard Chopin, whose playing and method of practising were “the opposite of Liszt’s”.
Liszt stood for “power, stamina, bravura, octaves, two hours a day of pure technique. Chopin studied Bach, had a more sensitive, more sensual way of approaching the keyboard, a fusion between the ear and what comes from the piano. And Debussy is for me the inheritor of Chopin’s way.”
But, as Cassard points out, in 1886 when Debussy was at the Villa Medici in Rome as winner of the Prix de Rome, Liszt came and stayed at the villa, played a number of pieces (including Au bord d’une source, which is in Cassard’s programme), and Debussy and fellow-student Paul Vidal played Liszt’s Faust Symphony on two pianos for the 75-year-old composer. “Thirty years later, in a letter, Debussy says that there were only two pianists who impressed him: his own teacher, Madame Mauté, because of the Chopin connection; and the old Liszt, who used the pedal as if it were a means of breathing.”