HIMY TRIUMPHS WITH DEBUSSY AND LISZT
The piano produces sound via hammers, but for Eric Himy the hammers are encased in velvet. At the Santa Rosa Junior College Chamber Concerts Newman Auditorium concert on November 16, Himy (pronounced hee-mee) produced sounds of the utmost softness, gentility, and evanescence, at times conveying the impression that the resident Steinway creates pure sound without recourse to any type of mechanical action.
Himy’s light touch was most in evidence in the first half, devoted entirely to the impressionistic musical postcards of Claude Debussy. Leading off with his own transcription of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Himy at once established a dream-like, mythic atmosphere in which the air was perfumed with sound, the earth was perpetually shifting, and the surrounding waters were transformed into sprays of color. Modern music is often said to begin with Debussy’s Prélude, and Himy delivered a convincing argument for this point of view. Freed of the constraints of exposition, development and recapitulation, Debussy’s faun wanders about in a sonic world far removed from our own. The faun’s existence, however, depends on the fingers that bring him to life, and in this case, the fingers were up to the task.
From the dream world of the faun, Himy brought the audience back to earth with a pair of Spanish postcards, La puerta del vino and La soirée dans Grenade. In his engaging introduction, Himy noted that the two pieces are considered some of the best Spanish music ever written, even though Debussy never set foot in the country. That disconnect points to the power of Debussy’s imagination, a power that both performer and audience are invited to share. Himy’s sensitive playing made it easy for this reviewer, at least, to imagine himself strolling through the puerta del vino or spending an evening in Grenada.
The real tour de force came in the next set of six postcards, beginning with the gently rocking sailboats of Voiles (anchored to a low B flat) and ending with the spectacular Bastille Day fireworks of Feux d’artifice. In the former, Himy connected notes effortlessly, transforming scales and runs into clouds of sound. These clouds seemed to lift from the piano’s strings and float out into the audience, encumbered only by the occasional cough. The subsequent postcards started soft and then got softer. By the end of the set, the audience was ready for some drama, which Himy provided in spades with Feux d’artifice. This astounding evocation of a Bastille Day celebration is punctuated with spectacular fireworks, increasingly giddy behavior, and a final reprieve of “La Marseillaise.”
The first half closed with three more familiar Debussy scores: Poisson d’or, Reflets dans l’eau and L’isle joyeuse. Here the infinite variety of water as it moves through space and time gives Debussy plenty of material, enough for a lesser composer to drown in. Himy kept us all afloat, however, consistently staying above the waves and finally depositing us in the dreamland of the joyous island, where fauns undoubtedly lurk in the shadows.
The perfection of the first half was hard to match, but Himy did his best after intermission, offering Liszt as one of Debussy’s progenitors. The actual and musical connections between the two were many, as Himy explained in his introductory remarks, and the pieces he played proved the point. The first set included not only two water-inspired pieces (Au bord d’une source and LesJeux d’eau de la Villa d’Este, but also one dream evocation (En Rêve-titles and themes that could have easily been Debussy’s. The contents, however, were of less interest, often consisting of extended trills in the upper registers and booming thunder in the lower.
The music got more interesting in the second set, consisting of a Petrarch sonnet, some gray clouds, and a tour of Dante’s hell and paradise. The ending of Sonetto 123 del Petrarca was absolute magic, with Himy moving from the softest piano, to pianissimo, to pianississimo (ppp), to a sound that barely registered in the hushed silence of the auditorium. Moments later, after a brief diversion into Nuages gris , Himy was fully embroiled in the tritone flames of Dante’s circles, descending deeper and deeper beneath the earth. Après une lecture de Dante is not the most subtle piece of music ever written, but it can be tremendously effective if the performer has the stamina to maintain its alternating visions of heaven and hell. Himy proved he had what it takes, catapulting headlong into the inferno and repeatedly coming up for a glimpse of paradise until the two alternate realities merged into one. The finish was tremendous.
The ensuing encores began with Summertime, a far less disturbing vision of hot weather, followed by Himy’s own composition, Le chat, based on a Baudelaire poem of the same name. These gave way in turn to a brief, unpublished Ravel minuet, and finally a Carmen fantasy penned by Horowitz. In a concert of piano showpieces, the pianists had the last word.