In an interview to the Navhind Times, Marouan Benabdallah had said that the core of his recital programme in Goa (at the Maquinez Palace on 7 April 2013) was the music of Debussy, as the other composers either influenced him (as in the case of Liszt) or were influenced by him (Bartók and Scriabin).

But there seemed to be another theme running through the choice of music as well: Program music i.e. music that is inspired by, or attempts to render, an extra-musical narrative.

Benabdallah began the concert with three works by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Mephisto Waltz no. 3 belongs to a set of four waltzes by that name, which take their inspiration from the story of Faust, not the more famous version by Goethe but by Nikolaus Lenau.

Although not as popular as the first waltz, Humphrey Searle in his book The Music of Liszt considers Mephisto Waltz no 3 to be one of his finest achievements. It was played magisterially by Benabdallah with the ‘demonic’ energy it demanded, ‘Mephistophelian’ triplets, ‘devils’s trills’ and all.

From the demonic to the beatific, with Ave Maria (also known as ‘The Bells of Rome), a reminder of Liszt’s deeply spiritual side and of his ‘trifurcate’ existence between Rome, Weimar and Budapest. The bells are suggested by the deep bass notes in the left hand. Significantly this is also the work played by Benabdallah’s compatriot Zoltán Kocsis in honour of the previous Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican to celebrate the bicentenary of Liszt in 2011. In Benabdallah’s hands, it was a true inspiration to prayer. This was followed by ‘Sposalizio’, a composition from Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage (the Second year, Italy) inspired by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael’s painting ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ (Sposalizio), in Milan. Liszt wrote in a letter to colleague Hector Berlioz about the stimulation he felt by the art he encountered in Italy: “The feeling and the thought penetrated me more each day concerning the hidden relationship which unites works of genius. Raphael and Michelangelo helped me to better understand Mozart and Beethoven.” Prof. Joan Backus from the University of Victoria makes a compelling argument about the structure of the work mirroring the perspective in the painting; the “bell-like” melody representing the church in the background. In the words of pianist Alfred Brendel, the “sophisticated harmonies…manage to create an aura of elated innocence.” Furthermore, the processional arpeggiation early in the music is believed to represent the entrance of the Virgin on the scene, corroborated by Liszt himself when he arranged the work for women’s chorus and the words “Ave Maria” are sung at exactly this point. The downward cascading figure in the right hand in the last few bars seemed to have the seed of Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1 encrypted in it.

The fare shifted now to another Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Bartók’s 2nd Elegy (Op. 8/b) was completed in 1909 at a time in his life when he was largely preoccupied with ethnomusicological studies of East European folksongs. The Elegies in contrast seem imbued more in “Lisztian bombast and Debussyian expanded harmony”. It gives prominence to the “love motif” (a major seventh chord), with the love interest ascribed variously to his pupil Marta Ziegler who he married, and by others as a symbolic renunciation of his unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer.

The next work Scherzo from Bartók’s Four Piano Pieces was dedicated by him to Ernő Dohnányi, another huge influence on him. Both the Bartók works were played by Benabdallah with familiar relish.

After a short interval came the “core” of the recital programme with Claude Debussy (1862-1918). In a letter to colleague Edgar Varèse, Debussy had confessed: “I love pictures almost as much as music.” His friend René Peter went even further: “To judge by his works and by their titles, he is a painter and that is what he wants to be…Plainly it is his delight to paint in music.” And he ‘paints’ delightfully indeed in his Images (Book 2). The first two works are inspired by Far Eastern harmonies. In “Bells through the leaves”, the tinkling bells are suggested by a whole-tone scale which forms the structure of the whole work. “And the moon sets over the temple that was” is an atmospheric, ethereal study in musical painting. The last work “Goldfish” is believed to be directly inspired by a Japanese lacquer painting that Debussy owned. Here Benabdallah was clearly in his element. In his playing that sparkled and enchanted in turns, we “saw” pallid moonbeams on Balinese temple ruins and darting fish in a sunlit pond.

On now to Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), who went beyond imagery to synaesthesia, and was able to assign colours to tonalities and keys. Boris Pasternak said of him: “It seems that he would simply leave the ground and float above it”. This sense of free-floating ‘lightness of being’ is felt in the first of Scriabin’s Two Poems (Op. 32) in the “bright blue/violet” key of F sharp major that he seemed to be fond of. The second Poem (in the “yellow” key of D major) begins dramatically and ends quietly as if it has run out of steam. The Poems were often played by Scriabin himself in recital.

The concert ended with Scriabin’s Sonata no. 4 in F sharp major (Op. 30), also written in 1903, the same year as the Op. 32 Poems. It is his shortest sonata, a monothematic two-movement work described by Scriabin himself in a poem as a “flight to a distant star”, perhaps a metaphor for pursuit of ecstasy. Benabdallah’s own voyage was joyous and incandescent, with dazzling fingerwork that brought the curtain down on an almost cinematic spectacle in the Maquinez Palace auditorium.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 16 April 2013)