David Talks Debussy

In some ways, the opening four bars of Debussy's Cello Sonata are like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. I first learnt this sonata over 8 years ago, and since then, I've just about played it with a different cellist every year. While it still holds surprises for me each time I come back to it, having played it for more than a quarter of my life means that I've developed a certain way of playing it. This can be a dangerous approach to have, because while it's nice to have that comfortable pair of shoes on again, the risk of relaxing too much and not giving the energy and excitement needed can result in an underwhelming performance. Even though it is written in such an inventive way, without the right energy behind it, the magic is lost.

In 1915 Debussy set about an unusual project. He planned to write a set of five sonatas for different combinations of instruments, with a sixth piece bringing all of the instruments together and adding a double bass. However, Debussy's cancer meant the project was never completed. The three sonatas that were completed are each short, but incredibly rich in material and packed full of detail. They were a departure from Debussy's lush, sensual style and critics at the time struggled with the sparser nature of the music, even saying they were "frankly inferior", "lacking sensual impetus" and "rarely held a surprise". People have now realised that this stylistic change was part due to Debussy's love of French Baroque music, and these pieces were the start of a neo-Baroque and neo-Classical movement to come later in the 20th Century.

There are certain challenges that come with playing a piece with many different duo partners, and in a piece as detailed and intricate as the Debussy Sonata, these challenges are even greater. Of course, the ensemble between cellist and pianist must be strong, subtle changes in tempo, whole sections marked "rubato", and different articulation markings on almost every note mean that there must be a great understanding between the two musicians. Having played this piece with so many different cellists gives me an advantage here, as I know what to listen, watch and wait for at any given time. In a way, having worked on this piece with so many people drags me away from being set in my ways, and opens me up to new and exciting interpretations.

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