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Nightfall is that magical hour when day and night face each other and the sky descends into twilight. For a brief moment, light and darkness are in harmony and merge together. I believe we all carry elements of light and darkness within us. An awareness and affirmation of life, reality and conscience on the one hand; the shadow of greed and temptation on the other. We don’t always succeed in recognising or even defining the boundary between these opposing elements within us. My new album, Nightfall, takes its inspiration from this merging of contrasts, both internal and external, with a programme of works that explores the complex dichotomy existing in every human character.

The album is devoted to the music of three composers who lived, worked and died in Paris: Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. Three contemporaries: sometimes friends, sometimes rivals. Though they could hardly have been more different, they were all part of an era and a movement that stood the world of the arts on its head, giving it a new definition and significance. Ever since I explored that era together with my friend and colleague Francesco Tristano for our album Scandale, I felt the desire to spend more time with the music composed during this time.

Debussy composed Rêverie in 1890 while still in a phase of musical searching and development. Rêverie, with its repeated motifs and its lack of climaxes, has a somnolent, trance-like character that connects it to the world of Satie. It’s also a marvellous, almost innocent way to begin this album.

Suite bergamasque arose in the same year, though Debussy reworked it over and over again before releasing it for publication in 1905. Inspired by baroque dance rhythms, the outer movements Prélude and Passepied, as well as the Menuet, have a merry, sometimes festive character. They stand in stark contrast with the third movement, ‘Clair de lune’. Here Debussy set a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine in which the poet speaks of the happiness that masks his sorrow. This human dichotomy finds vivid expression in Debussy’s setting.

Satie’s Gymnopédies (1888) and Gnossiennes (1890) are among the most popular works in the history of classical music. Satie was convinced that a composer has no right to claim his listeners’ time. He developed his own notion of background music, which he called musique d’ameublement – ‘furniture music’. Despite his minimalist style of composition, Satie was an extremely complex and cynical man. This is plain to see in his instructions to the player: instead of expression marks we find such turns of phrase as ‘Open your head’, ‘Bury the sound’ or ‘Create something hollow’. The ambiguity of these phrases not only makes me rack my brain (they remind me of the lyrics of my favourite band, Pink Floyd), but sometimes cause me to doubt Satie’s humble artistic persona.

Ravel, with his three-part Gaspard de la nuit from 1908, composed one of the greatest challenges in the piano repertoire. Goaded by his ambition to surpass Mily Balakirev’s Islamey, then regarded as the most difficult piano piece ever written, he set three poems Gaspard de la nuit, a volume of prose- poems by Aloysius Bertrand. By his own account, Bertrand received this volume from the Devil himself who, disguised as an old man, met him in a park in Dijon. Ravel’s setting is demanding in the extreme, both pianistically and emotionally. In ‘Ondine’, named for the water sprite who falls unhappily in love with a human being, we are confronted with our own fears of rejection and heartbreak. In ‘Le Gibet’, where the dead man’s heartbeat echoes through the entire piece, we face the fear of loss and transience. ‘Scarbo’, a gnome who attacks artists in the night and drinks their blood, confronts us with the fear of failure. While Ravel was working on this piece his father suffered a stroke, and the act of creation was overshadowed by the ever-present dread of receiving news of his death. One month after completing his pianistic triptych, Ravel’s father died of cerebral thrombosis.

At the end of the album is Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, a little piece composed in 1899. I found it a fitting way to end this very complex and bleak album. Ravel himself described the piece as ‘an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court’. Whether this expresses a desire for eternal youth, or the dilemma of someone who cannot grow up, is a question I leave to the listener’s imagination.

This year I will start a new decade in my life, moving back to my hometown Munich after having spent seven years in Berlin. It also marks my tenth year with Deutsche Grammophon. It is a turning-point in my life and I wanted to assemble a programme that reflects my personal memories and changes over the past ten years. It’s a very personal album in which I recall many moments of light and brightness, but also moments of darkness and doubts. One month before I entered the recording studio – I was in the midst of the bleak world of Gaspard de la nuit – my father suffered a heart attack that he barely survived. Despite a fortunate outcome, these were terrifying hours and days in which I realised how close life and death are intertwined. But there can be no light without darkness, and no hope without fear. And sometimes the borders blur – as in Nightfall.

Alice Sara Ott Read the full review on Agora Classica

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