I have written before about music which stops you in your tracks, music for which you would climb down the ladder. As a girl, I heard something by Debussy on the radio, and asked my teacher about a piece called ‘La plus culotte?? ‘ … He put me right as to the title, and I went out and bought a copy of La Plus Que Lente. And that was that. It didn’t get played. Too many flats in the key signature.
Some years later, I bought an LP of Heifetz encores, which featured the piece in Heifetz’s transcription for violin/piano (above). Sensuous and haunting, the piece again caught my attention; the flats no longer were a hindrance – but still it didn’t make it into my repertoire. Too busy.
At long last, in 2012, I have learnt it – and performed it, as part of my French Connection programme. And wonderfully satisfying it has been. The piece was written in 1910, and was premiered in an arrangement for strings by a Romany band in the New Carlton Hotel in Paris, which is why the Heifetz arrangement is so apt. The piece cries out for portamento and vibrato; and an instinctive rubato, which Heifetz and his accompanist Emanuel Bay share, gives the piece the fluidity and freedom it needs.
There is one main musical idea – an alternating, back-and-forth figure, which Debussy clothes in a great range of harmonies, changing its character accordingly. Two sections which include different material create a kind of rondo effect, but it is the oscillating motive which holds the structure together, and which provides the piece’s all-pervasive, yearning melancholy.
Although written after the first book of Préludes, the piece is in no way impressionistic. It’s more a late romantic style: lush, bitter-sweet, and perhaps indulgently nostalgic. Thinking about it, it’s not for children; you have to be older to play this one. So I’m glad I waited!
Here is the piano version, played by Rubinstein: