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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes (Complete). Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre.

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92)

Regards de l’Enfant-Jésus – Regard de l’Esprit de joie; Regard du silence. Catalogue d’oiseaux, Livre 1 – Le Merle bleu.
Jean-Rodolphe Kars (piano); London Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Gibson.
Recorded in St John’s, Smith Square in December 1970-January 1971 (Préludes), Kingsway Hall, London in May 1969 (Fantaisie), Decca Studio No. 3, West Hampstead in April and July 1968 (Messiaen). [ADD]
DOUBLE DECCA 468 552-2 [two discs] [140.58]


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When Jean-Rodolphe Kars, a winner of the 1968 Messiaen Competition and runner up in Leeds in 1966, first released his reading of the Debussy Préludes in 1971 (on Decca 3BB107/8), he came into direct competition with fellow Frenchman and Messiaen Competition winner from 1967, Michel Béroff. Béroff’s name is more frequently uttered these days (although perhaps not that much more so), so this reissue brings a ripe opportunity for reappraisal for his colleague.

Kars’ Debussy is characterised by a delicacy of touch and virtuoso pedal control. He is not afraid to summon up an archetypically Debussian haze when he feels it warranted (his Cathédrale engloutie is misty and shrouded in pedal, as is his Brouillards from Book 2), but he also possesses a crisp, often capricious staccato which results in, for example, a flitting Puck (complete with horn calls which really do sound as such). The distant rumblings of the West Wind Prelude are suitably evocative, and his Sérénade interrompue is truly guitar-like. Only Minstrels is under-characterized, not quite close enough to the tumbling, floppy commedia dell’arte figures Debussy so memorably evokes.

There is no doubting Kars’ technique: just listen to the amazing fingerwork of Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses, or the exquisitely placed chords of Canopes. Surprisingly, and a little disappointingly, it is Feux d’artifice which emerges on the careful side. The only other clear let-down of Kars’ traversal comes at the climax of La Cathédrale engloutie, where the tension sags in the lead-up passage.

Competition in this repertoire is fierce. It needs hardly to be said, surely, that every collection should include Gieseking’s 1953/4 account of the Préludes (now on a single EMI Great Recordings of the Century disc, CDM5 67233-2). Zimmerman provides a recommendable experience from nearer our contemporary perspective (DG 435 773-2, on two discs). This is not to imply that Kars is infinitely inferior: he plays with a great amount of character and this account will provide an excellent alternative version.

I have deliberately left mention of one Prélude until after my summing-up. Kars’ erotic, spell-binding performance of La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune is actually directly, forward-lookingly evocative of the world of Messiaen, and this connection is made explicit by the three pieces by this composer (originally from SXL6378, where they were coupled with a selection of pieces by Liszt). In the music of Messiaen, Kars is particularly mesmerising. There is a hushed fragility to ‘Regard du silence’, but it is with the quarter of an hour long Le Merle bleu that he impresses most. This is a rapt and compelling account during the course of which Kars chooses to show the reciprocal Debussian side of Messiaen (about five minutes in).

The Debussy Fantaisie was originally (and intriguingly) coupled with the Delius Piano Concerto in C minor on Decca SXL6435. Here it is inserted in between the two sets of Préludes: but in Kars’ hands it is far more than an interlude. Whether in the tender Largo e molto espressivo introduction to the second movement, or in the more impressive later stages (Allegro molto, where it is certainly ‘molto vivace’), this is a performance which, it is to be hoped, will win converts to this seldom-heard piece. The recorded balance is more than acceptable, and Gibson accompanies magnificently.

In sum, this is a first-class bargain which will handsomely supplement any Debussy collection.

 

Colin Clarke


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