I first learned of this outstanding pianist from Gail Wein of Classical Communications when she graciously sent me Ms. Handelsman’s recently released CD to peruse. As a fan of composer Claude Debussy, especially his lesser known works, and penchant for championing young musicians, I jumped at the chance to interview the mastermind behind the CD that celebrates those pieces.
I’m pleased to introduce you to pianist Mathilde Handelsman and share her story.
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LRW: As an art teacher, the cover art of a CD gets noticed right away. May I ask who designed your CD cover art? Was the designer hired by the record label, or did you get to choose?
MH: The graphic artist Zoé Fontaine designed the cover. The record label Sheva gave me the freedom to choose the artist, which was great. Zoe is an incredible artist to work with and a close friend. She and I exchanged ideas for several weeks beforehand, and then she sent me rough ideas for about ten covers — it was difficult to choose only one!
LRW: How nice to have worked with a close friend to design something as personal as a CD cover. Ms. Fontaine did a beautiful job. What was the motivation behind the design?
MH: It was particularly important to me that the cover communicates something alluding to Japanese prints, as a tribute to one of Debussy’s main sources of inspiration for his two cycles Estampes (French for Prints) and Images, which form the bulk of the album.
When Debussy wrote the Estampes in 1903, he was fascinated with Asian art and artefacts, particularly with Japanese prints and ink drawings, as well as Balinese and Javanese music. In the 1900’s, Debussy even had his publisher Durand include Japanese-inspired, hand-painted covers for his printed scores. The first edition of La Mer, for example, features the famous Hokusai painting of the wave (Great Wave off Kanagawa).
I was very intent on specific elements featuring on this album cover, like the pink cherry blossoms, and I think Zoé did an outstanding job at conveying the feel I was going for.
LRW: As an art teacher and artist, I’ve been a fan of Hokusai‘s work and am of course familiar with the Great Wave off Kanagawa. Nice backstory and history. Yes, the layout of the cherry blossom images on the CD, case and booklet fits the theme perfectly. Your CD is entitled “Images”. How and why did you choose that title?
MH: It is an eponymous title, taken from Debussy’s two books of Images which feature quite prominently in the album. I chose that title because it was one of the most accessible Debussy-an titles in this record for English-speakers – as opposed to, say, Reflets dans l’eau or L’isle Joyeuse… Images is also a more generic title, capturing the essence of all these different works with visually vivid names. Finally, the word “images” is interchangeable in French and English – that was perfect since I wanted it to be direct and evocative to French and Anglophone audiences alike.
LRW: You put a lot of thought into the title, honoring the music chosen and making it accessible to the listeners. You’ve selected works exclusively by Claude Debussy. Why this composer? Why these pieces? Why now? Details, please.
MH: I knew for a very long time that my first album would be devoted to Claude Debussy. Prior to the recording, and before I even thought about making a CD, I had been focusing on Debussy and particularly on this period spanning 1903 to 1907. Some of the repertoire in the album I started playing when I was fifteen, and as years went by and I added more of Debussy’s pieces from the same period, I was more and more intrigued by the connections I instinctively felt between these works. I eventually wrote a Master’s dissertation on the same topic during my studies at the University of Strasbourg in France. By the time the opportunity to record an album presented itself this repertoire was what felt the most natural and personal.
LRW: It is as if the seed of the CD was germinating over the years, nourished by the knowledge you attained, and then ready to blossom! I read that you chose to record your CD on a Steinway from Debussy’s time (1875) in a small town in France in order to capture the sound from the era in which it was composed. How did you find that treasure and the recording venue? Story, please.
MH: That piano really is a ¬hidden treasure. It belonged to the French pianist Jean Wiéner and is now kept in the chapel of the music conservatoire in Chateau-Thierry. It is a beautiful Steinway with a deep, dark, and warm timbre. Admittedly, it was not the easiest instrument to maneuver for a recording – old pianos can be quite capricious –, but for the unique sonic result we obtained, I think it was worth the challenge.
LRW: I love stories about uncovering hidden treasures, and the scenario around it. Wow, you recorded on Jean Wiéner’s piano! Can you tell a little bit more about Chateau-Thierry?
MH: Chateau-Thierry is a beautiful little town northeast of Paris, with a rich and interesting history. I loved making the album there and keep very fond memories of those recording days.
LRW: Thank you for sharing photos of this lovely place. The ambience itself must have been inspiring. May I ask, is this your first album of solo piano works? Have you recorded CDs with other musicians? If so, may I ask what were they and if they are available for streaming or purchase?
MH: Yes, this is my very first solo album. I recorded one other CD of chamber music for woodwinds and piano by the French composer Roger Boutry, but it has not been released yet. Several projects of solo piano albums are currently in the works. I won’t reveal any of them just yet – but stay tuned!
LRW: Congratulations on producing your first solo album. I’m not familiar with composer Roger Boutry and look forward to researching more on him. Please do keep us posted when your chamber music and other solo piano albums are released. Is this CD part of a series of albums dedicated to Debussy rather than a stand-alone recording?
MH: At the time I didn’t conceive it as being part of a series. I was very focused on that particular period of 1903-1907 in Debussy’s compositional output. But I do play a lot of Debussy other than the works in this recording, and I regularly include selections of his pieces in my recital programs. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be too surprising if I were to record more Debussy in the future…
LRW: Good to know. I certainly hope so! 🙂 As a pianist and piano teacher, I’m also a huge fan of Debussy and love sharing his music with my students. Speaking of recitals, with many concert halls still closed, would you happen to be planning a live stream event of some of these remarkable works? Maybe a YouTube video or a series? If so, may we please know the link where to view them? Thank you.
MH: Throughout last year I included some of these works in concerts and lecture-recitals live-streamed from home, most recently for the online Literary Music Series in which I drew parallels between this music with pieces by Franz Liszt and Charles Baudelaire’s poetry. It is a topic that currently fascinates me, so there may be similar live-streamed events this year as well, though no specific date is scheduled yet. These online events are usually streamed through my YouTube channel. Feel free to click the link and subscribe.
LRW: I love finding connections between music and poetry. It’s wonderful that you took the time and effort to create these great lecture-recitals from your home. I will definitely check them out on your YouTube channel. So, once concert halls open again, do you plan to perform these works live? If so, how may my students, readers and I be kept informed? Is there a mailing list we may subscribe to?
MH: I have been very lucky to start performing in person again this year, and I am grateful for that. (As convenient as live-streams can be, especially during this difficult period for live music, they can never replace the full physical experience of a live concert.) I will indeed be performing selections from this body of works live in my next recitals, first in Paris this winter and then in several venues on the East Coast in the spring. All the information regarding my next concerts is available on my website where you can also subscribe to my newsletter and receive my news by email.
LRW: I’m so glad to hear! Live-stream has been a lifeline during the pandemic, but there’s nothing like attending a live concert. Thanks for the link. I hope my students and readers will consider subscribing. Where may your CD be purchased? Is it also available on music streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple iTunes, etc.?
MH: The CD “Images” may be purchased online through my website or on the Sheva label’s website. And yes, it is also available on most streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple iTunes, Deezer, Amazon, Tidal, etc. Thank you for listening!
LRW: It was a pleasure sharing your CD and story with my students and readers. Best wishes to you with your upcoming concerts and futures CDs!
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