Claude Debussy: Préludes (ECM New Series 2241/42)


Claude Debussy

Alexei Lubimov piano
Alexei Zuev piano
Recorded April 2011, Sint-Pieterskerk, Leut, Belgium
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

My shadow glides in silence
over the watercourse
A glow arises in my breast,
the one mirrored in the water.
–Federico García Lorca, “Debussy”

Though unconventional in form, the two books of piano music known as Claude Debussy’s Préludes have withstood the test of time by means of their structural integrity and ordering—or, in the latter case, their lack thereof. For while their collective title conjures the well-tempered catalogs of composers as divergent as Bach, Chopin, and Shostakovich, in practice they bear little resemblance to those 24-part pantheons of keyboard literature. Whether by the descriptive titles famously appended to the ends individual pieces or by the fact that Debussy never intended for them to be played as a unified set, one can see that the Préludes were built as agents of a creative mind for whom fragments were worlds unto themselves. On the latter note, it’s easy to see why Debussy’s sound has so often been misconstrued as “impressionistic,” when in fact it was more closely aligned to the assured stroke of a pen than to the fleeting contact of a paintbrush. With such knowledge held firmly in mind, Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov roulettes the sonority of these emotionally charged miniatures by recording Book I on a 1925 Bechstein and Book II on a 1913 Steinway—the logic being that such instruments might better express Debussy’s own envisioning of how they should be played. This decision brings about surprising color shifts and, somehow, a keener feel for the rhythms therein.


Book I, composed between 1909 and 1910, opens and closes with touches of cabaret, balancing the sweep of Debussy’s pastoral vision with “pingbacks” of striking modernism. Between them is nothing so dramatic as to bog down the listener’s response, so that even the most provocative spirals—viz: “Le vent dans la plaine,” “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest,” and the flamenco-inspired “La sérénade interrompue”—seem but compressions of the more typified mysteries of “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” and the echoing passage of “Des pas sur la neige.” Even the sportive “Les collines d’Anacapri,” while exuberant enough, only reinforces the reflective heart of this music. Nowhere do these two ends of the spectrum mesh so democratically than in the “La cathédrale engloutie,” which drips from Lubimov’s fingers like the anointing perfume from Mary Magdalene’s alabaster jar. Cutting across their timeworn densities, Lubimov lets those block chords sing with ecumenical clarity and hits that fated low note with perfect pressure.

Through this “inside-out” approach, Lubimov nurtures a sustainable ecosystem from Debussy’s already-organic notecraft, thus clarifying the bas-relief of Book II. Composed between 1911 and 1912, its elemental pathways range from watery swirls (“Brouillards,” “Ondine,” and “Canope”) and flowering dances (“La puerta del vino” and “Feux d’artifice”) to downright Bartókian diversion (“General Lavine – excentric”) and sweeping intimacies (“Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” and “Bruyères”). A note-worthily deep point coheres around “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” the exposition of which calls forth the composer’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande as if it were a lucid dream.

In addition to the Préludes, Lubimov’s student Alexei Zuev joins his teacher to traverse piano versions of two of Debussy’s most beloved orchestral works. Maurice Ravel’s transcription of the Trois Nocturnes cuts a tree of plaintive ornaments, swaying to increasingly fervent winds toward the final “Sirènes,” wherein seeps 11 minutes of nutrients for roots stretching far into the interpretive histories of those on either side of the score, the undercurrent of which teems with an oceanic abundance of life. To finish, the duo benchmarks Debussy’s own transcription of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune with a performance of such scope and vision that one need no effort trying to imagine the landscape burgeoning beneath its 20 fingers.

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