This year is the 150th anniversary of his birth bringing with it new releases and re-releases of recordings of his music. Central to Debussy’s output were his works for piano and central to these were his Preludes Book 1 (1909-1910) and Book 2 (1912-1913).
The names of these preludes are not really titles as such since they are hidden away at the end of each work in parentheses. Debussy had tired of the constant debate about musical ‘impressionism’ and had moved on, calling these works preludes in an apparent attempt to connect himself to the musical forms of the past. It may be considered that, by placing the titles at the end of each prelude, Debussy wanted performers to form their own feelings about the music before reading his descriptions.
With the exception of Les tierces alternées (Alternating Thirds) in Book 2, these works, whether overtly descriptive or not, summon up in the most remarkable way fleeting moods and images. By the time of Book 2 Debussy had been influenced by Stravinsky, whom he had met in 1910, and there appear more dissonant harmonies.
Deutsche Grammophon www.deutschegrammophon.com has marked this anniversary with a new release featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard www.pierrelaurentaimard.com playing the complete Debussy Preludes.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard brings great authority to these works and from the start shows superb control of dynamics and tempi. He gives a breadth and feel that is just right in Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) whilst in Voiles (Sails) phrasing is beautifully done, full of atmosphere, yet never too vague and dreamy. His delicacy of playing is simply entrancing.
Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain) is finely controlled yet at the same time sounds spontaneous. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir
(The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) creates a perfectly judged atmosphere and Les collines d'Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) is wonderfully controlled and perfectly judged in some of the finest Debussy playing I have heard.
In Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow) Aimard again creates a complete sound world to perfection with phrasing and tempi perfect. As the piece progresses his sensitive playing subtly allows a little warmth to enter.
Aimard conjures richly intense sounds in Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the West Wind has seen) as he slowly builds the western wind. With La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) he plays this well-known prelude in what at first appears to be a straight and direct way but such is his sensitive phrasing that one hears a new depth to the piece.
After the brilliant Latin rhythms of La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted Serenade), Aimard’s 'La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) provides great atmosphere and feeling as it builds to a stunning climax as the Cathedral appears. It is difficult to bring off the elusive La danse de Puck (Puck's Dance) with its rapid tempi changes but Aimard does so wonderfully whilst topping off Book 1 with a delightful ‘Minstrels’ that conjures up Parisian delight.
In Book 2 Brouillards (Mists) brings some beautifully delicate touches, the rippling phrases showing Aimard’s superb fluency. In Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) there is a real depth with so many layers of feeling, autumnal, funereal, tolling bells and an air of stately desolation.
La puerta del Vino (The Gate of Wine) has lovely flourishes of rhythm combined with Aimard’s beautifully rich tone and Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (The Fairies are exquisite dancers), another of the more famous preludes, here given a beautifully drawn performance, fleet and carefree.
Bruyères (Heather) is a particularly lovely prelude to which Aimard gives a light and spontaneous feel, so French, so light and fleeting. Such was the marvellous playing in this prelude that I went immediately back to my benchmark recording of the work. Not Zimmerman, not Ogawa, not even Gieseking, but Martino Tirimo. As fine as his are, it is the inspired phrasing, the knowing how to hold back just enough to lift the music’s poise, that marks out the genius of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s playing.
Great fun is brought to General Lavine whilst La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace of Moonlit Audiences) has the wonderful harmonic shifts perfectly judged to give mood and feel to the music. Another particular high point which had me running back to Tirimo’s recording is Ondine with its changes of moods and rhythm beautifully handled.
Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Homage to S. Pickwick), Debussy’s joke at the expense of the English is wonderfully tongue in cheek whilst the elusive Canope (Canopic vase), another prelude difficult to pull off, is so brilliantly done. Les Tierces alternees is brilliantly balanced by Aimard.
With Feux d'artifice (Fireworks), the final preludes, we get superb playing of stunning brilliance, but with Aimard never forgetting the underlying musical intent. What a finale to superb performances of such fluency, such panache. Formidable playing.
By now you will have gathered that I admire these performances immensely. With excellent sound they must go to the top of any list of recommended recordings of these works.