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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Douze Préludes: Livre 1 (1910); Douze Préludes: Livre 2 (1910/1913) - excerpts: Danseuses de Delphes (Bk 1 - No.1) [3:40]; La Puerta del Vino (2 - 3) [3:44]; Des pas sur la neige (1 - 6 ) [4:04]; La danse de Puck (1 - 11) [3:26]; La Sérénade interrompue (1 - 9) [2:54]; Le Vent dans la plaine (1 - 3) [2:58]; Bruyères (2 - 5) [3:10]; General Levine - eccentric (2 - 6) [2:57]; Canope (2 - 10) [3:06]; Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (1 - 7) [3:48]; La fille aux cheveux de lin (1 - 8) [2:47]; Minstrels (1 - 12) [2:31]; La cathédrale engloutie (1 - 10) [6:23]; Ondine (2 - 8) [3:42]; La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (2 - 7) [4:52]; Feux d'artifice (2 - 12) [5:07]
Jorge Bolet (piano)
rec. September 1988, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA. DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 1131 [59:54]
Experience Classicsonline

Jorge Bolet signed a recording contract with Decca Records in 1978. Before that he had only recorded for small companies. Thus he gained his first contract with a major recording company at the age of 63! He was born in Havana, Cuba, and studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he later taught - from 1939 to 1942. His teachers included Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann, Moritz Rosenthal and Fritz Reiner. In 1937, he won the Naumberg Competition and gave his debut recital. Five years later he joined the US Army and was sent to Japan, where he conducted the Japanese premiere of The Mikado. His career really took off in 1974 with a recital at Carnegie Hall. Harold Schonberg, considered him "a kind of latter-day Josef Lhévinne”. Bolet's health started to fail in 1988, and the following year he underwent brain surgery from which he never fully recovered. He died of heart failure in October 1990, at his home in Mountain View, California. 
Throughout his career Bolet endorsed, and performed on, Baldwin and Bechstein pianos; the former is used on this recording. Many claim that the most perfect piano sound and tone - through expert technical preparation - was to be found on his last Decca solo piano recording, the one under discussion here.

This selection of sixteen of Debussy’s Préludes contain nine from Book 1 and seven from Book 2, mixed up to make a very attractive suite. However, if you’re used to listening to the Préludes from beginning to end, some of the juxtapositions will come as a shock!

So what do we make of this collection? It is true that the piano sound is excellent, rich and rounded, and very well captured by the engineers. But what of the playing? Well … I have to admit that, for me, these performances, whilst technically very good indeed, simply didn’t set me on fire. For instance, where is the incredible wild abandon in Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest? This contains some of the fiercest music Debussy ever wrote, but you’d never know it from this performance. Des pas sur la neige is for me one of the most perfect compositions in all music, seeming, as it does, to sum up everything there is to understand about the human condition - we are all alone, basically. It is played as it is written, but where is the rubato necessary to point the events? Listen to Michelangeli in this and swoon at his use of rubato at the first appearance of harmony in the fifth bar. Truly masterly. Similarly, La cathédrale engloutie fails to reach the big climax of bells as it should. Feux d'artifice - Bastille Day celebrations? - with its faint remembrance of La Marseillaise lacks any festive feel.

I acknowledge that Bolet is a fine and fastidious pianist and there can be no doubting his pianism, it is superb. But what bothers me most about these performances is that they show very little insight into the music. Here are sixteen perfectly formed miniatures, all of which have their own character and personality, but which, here, all seem to be very much one and the same. I have little doubt that there will be many Bolet fans who will vehemently disagree with me, and good luck to them. I write about what I hear, and what I hear here is a good run-through of the notes, which any pianist would do before starting to think about interpretation. And now I have realised my dissatisfaction. These performances are unformed.

And here’s one final point. As Debussy wrote 24 Préludes why would anybody only want a selection of sixteen of them? There can only ever be one choice for Book 1 - Michelangeli (Deutsche Grammophon 413 450 2). This will never be bettered in terms of interpretation. If you want just Book 2 or both books played by one pianist you can do no better than Roy Howat (Tall Poppies TP 164 and TP 123) which forms part of his complete recording of Debussy’s piano music.

Bob Briggs  


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