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.

Juliane Banse/András Schiff: Songs of Debussy and Mozart (ECM New Series 1772)


Juliane Banse
András Schiff
Songs of Debussy and Mozart

Juliane Banse soprano
András Schiff piano
Recorded January 2001, Reitstadel, Neumarket
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes one can set aside the reputations of composers and simply enjoy their music. This recital of songs by Mozart and Debussy, performed by an equally unlikely pair in pianist András Schiff and soprano Juliane Banse, however, simply overflows with its creators’ indelible marks. With a hefty dose of poetry, from French symbolists to Goethe, at hand, we’re the lucky ones who get to connect the dots in a constellation of unusual proportions.

Schiff’s well-spaced articulations and Banse’s meticulous control of tone make for a most fitting vehicle for the evocative Beau soir (Beautiful evening) of Debussy that introduces the program. Clair de lune (Moonlight) very much recalls the songcraft of Poulenc and enchants with its opening line from Verlaine: “Your soul is a chosen landscape…” Such cerebral storytelling continues through Pierrot to the equivocal Apparition. Dissonances in En sourdine (Muted) and the almost Carmen-like pastiche of Fantoches (Marionettes) add bolder hues. Verlaine’s careful words reappear in C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is languorous ecstasy), in which Banse pines:

This soul which mourns
In the subdued lamentation,
It is ours, is it not?
Mine, say, and yours,
Breathing a humble anthem
In the warm evening, very softly? [1]

These songs are not without their programmatic gildings, as in the cascading pianism of Il pleure dans mon cœur (Tears fall in my heart) and the thrilling chording of Chevaux de bois (Merry-go-round). Many adjectives come to mind when trying to describe these miniatures, but the one that resounds most for me throughout this recording is: clear. Like fresh light poured upon the morning fields, they nourish like no other stimulant.

Where Debussy works in more horizontal, sinuous gestures, Mozart brings potent verticality. Though a few of his Lieder, such as Warnung (Warning), bristle with the stately charm we popularly associate with the Salzburgian wunderkind, we cannot help but be delighted by the playful strains of Der Zauberer (The sorcerer), which likens the flames of passion to the dark magic of an eager pursuer. The little fable of Das Veilchen (The violet) gives voice to the desires of its titular flower, who spots a frolicking shepherdess. The violet dreams of being plucked and pressed to her bosom, only to be trodden as she skips ignorantly past. Its last sentiments:

“If I must die, at least I die
Through her, through her,
Here, at her feet!”

The recital closes with Abendempfindung (Thoughts at eventide), in which Joachim Heinrich Campe bids his loved ones not to fall too deeply into grief upon his death, promising to be there with open hands to carry them into heaven:

Bestow a tear on me and be
Not ashamed to weep for me,
For this tear shall be the finest
Pearl within my diadem. [2]

These songs are simply fascinating, and all the more so for being programmed together. Within them are many discoveries to be had. Banse and Schiff are so exacting that one almost imagines the music as having been written for them. An altogether captivating album that is as capricious as it is austere.

[1] Translations by Winifred Radford.
[2] Translations by Lindsay Craig.