Debussy’s “Estampes” is a music piece in three movements: “Pagodas,” “Gardens in the Rain,” and “Evening in Granada.” Much like an Impressionist painting, each of the varied sections are played on the piano with elaborately detailed sounds. It’s a beautiful work, and you should give it a listen if you have the chance.
I listened to the pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s recording of the piece a lot when I was in high school. I listened to it over and over and over again until the record itself wore down and I’d memorized every note. Since it was the Cold War and Richter lived in Soviet Russia, he was like a mysterious specter never seen by those in the West until 1960 he went on an international tour and recorded a live performance in Italy. He played “Estampes” as part of a longer show, but it stood above the rest. He plays both intensely and with extreme sensitivity, and it inspires deep passions within your heart. I might summarize it as “bloodcurdling.” I can’t claim it’s exactly the way Debussy would have played it, but I can definitely say that out of all the recordings of “Estampes,” this Richter performance is my favorite.
The live recording of Richter’s version includes applause from the audience at the end. The applause is great. As you’d expect from an Italian audience, they break into thunderous applause and cheers just as the final note rings out, just like they would for an aria in an opera. Having just been whisked away by the sweeping performance, they snap back to awareness to communicate their appreciation. This is true, magnificent applause. And that’s why the applause implanted itself in my brain right along with the actual notes of the piece.
So one day I was asked by my school to attend a concert as an extracurricular activity. This famous Japanese pianist was doing a recital, and it just so happened that Debussy’s “Estampes” was part of the program. It wasn’t as moving as Richter’s performance, but it all fairness it possessed its own elegance. When the performance ended, I clapped. I was so absorbed in the music that I broke into applause with the same timing as the recording – a reflexive wild applause at the moment the last note rang out. I was so embarrassed. We were in Japan, not Italy. Nobody else clapped. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
I still listen to Richter’s version of “Estampes” sometimes, but I can feel my face turning red with embarrassment as I remember the incident. The human experience is fully of countless emotions, but everyone has tons of embarrassing moments. If life was all emotions, it would be exhausting.