The Monday Sonata concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival offered the essence of this year’s Bach-Debussy theme — Debussy Preludes from Book II, plus “L’isle joyeuse,” played by Peter Basquin; the Debussy Violin Sonata in G Minor, played by Basquin and festival co-founder Lewis Kaplan; and the Bach “Goldberg” Variations (BWV 988) by Emma Tahmizian.

The program opened with four of the Preludes from Book II, which are not performed as often as the more famous ones, such as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” from Book I. They were “Bruyeres,” “General Lavine — eccentric,” “La terasse de audiences du clair de lune” and “Ondine.”

Basquin’s interpretations were unusual but convincing, emphasizing the exquisite development of the sketches rather than painting them with an impressionistic brush loaded with what one artist has called “Winsor and Newton fog.”

I particularly liked “Ondine.” Debussy’s portrait of the water sprite is as enchanting as Ravel’s, but his does not go off in a huff when the poet refuses to live in her underwater castle.

The Violin Sonata, Debussy’s last work, was premiered, with the composer at the piano, during the darkest days of World War I. Rather than evoking the terrors of war, it is sweet and nostalgic, a dialog between equals so intimate that they could be lovers, quarreling and then coming even closer together.

The sonata is short, about 13 minutes, but includes the full range of the composer’s most characteristic work. Basquin and Kaplan collaborated well in an exciting performance.

Debussy’s work, with its echoes of gamelan music, once seemed exotic. Emma Tahmizian’s version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was strange indeed. I was unable to make out her opening remarks, but she appears to have included all of the repeats, making the work much longer than it usually is, and to have devoted herself assiduously to meretricious ornamentation. (Too many notes to the bar.)

The length was excruciating. The variations are among my favorite works, but I thought that if I heard that slow and plaintive little theme from Anna Magdalena’s notebook one more time, I would scream. The ornamentation choked off some of the most exciting passages, and the Quodlibet fell flat like a souffle looked at too often.

The Goldberg Variations are certainly a masterpiece, but they are not sacred, as Glenn Gould realized back in 1955. Too much reverence to the written score and so-called authentic performance obscures the music.

There were some brilliant passages, but Tahmizian’s earlier performance of the Bach-Busoni Toccata and Fugue was head and shoulders above Monday night’s reading. 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at:

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