Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)
Préludes Livres I & II
Recorded 21st & 22nd December 1998 [70.47]
Pro Piano records
Many years ago I was struggling with the first few pages of James Joyce's
Ulysses. In fact I was well and truly bogged down. However I was lucky enough
to receive sound advice from an elderly schoolteacher. "There is no need
to start at the beginning and read to the end. Dip in. Take a page or a chapter
or even a sentence at a time, and eventually you will finish the book," she
The same is true of Debussy's Preludes. The first thing to realise is that
the composer himself did not see it as a canon of performance to play all
these pieces together. He believed that they were quite uneven and of varying
quality. Furthermore the imaginative titles usually came after the pieces
were composed - Debussy and his daughter apparently discussed each one at
the piano and agreed an appropriate 'literary or impressionistic' title.
So there is supposedly no logical connection of ideas or emotions.
Nowadays it is accepted that recitalists will usually pick one or other of
the two 'books' and play them in the order written. The same is true of those
artists who make recordings. It seems to be the accepted norm that an issue
will consist of both 'livres' crammed onto one CD. For example, Martin Jones
on Nimbus, (NI5162) François-Joël Thiollier on Naxos (8.553293)
and the mono recording by Walter Gieseking on EMI (CDH7 61004-2) are all
on one CD. This is excellent value for money and is probably the model for
all future recordings. However it does not take account of the fact that
both composer and critics could well order these preludes differently than
in the printed music, nor the fact that non-Debussy-ites may not feel inclined
to listen to twenty pieces in order to hear their favourite four.
First of all a word about the recording label. It is one I have not come
across before. ProPiano Records is part of a group of companies that specialise
in everything to do with pianos. Beginning in 1969 as a piano tuning company
it now runs a large business of recordings, recital promotion, and performer
They have an attractive web site at www.propiano.com/propiano.html
There is no doubt that the recording company is in top form. This is a
beautifully produced CD (I do wonder a little about the cover, however) with
excellent sound and superb performance. The programme notes are impressive
and the résumé about the artist is informative if sometimes
a little pretentious
A few words on the pianist are in order for he is, I think, little known
in the United Kingdom. Vladimir Viardo is a Russian pianist who was born
in the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea. He studied in Moscow both with
the Lev Nuamov family and at the Conservatoire. There he gained his doctorate.
In 1971 he was awarded the Grand Prix & the Prix du Prince Rainer in
the Marguérite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition of Paris. Two years
later he won the top prize in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Unfortunately, for some mysterious reason, he lost his visa so he was barred
from travelling to the West. However after Perestroika and Glasnost he was
able to resume his activities on the international stage. He has a vast catalogue
of music under his belt including some thirty or forty piano concertos. His
many recordings include the works of Nicolai Medtner, Lutoslawski and Penderecki.
He has recorded piano transcriptions of organ works by Bach, Liszt &
Franck for Pro Piano. (PPR 224509)
When I have the opportunity of listening to recordings of Debussy's
Préludes, I usually play one from each book. The 'Sérénade
interrompue' from Livre I and 'Les tierces alternées' from Livre II.
In the first I look for a good 'quasi guitarra'! This piece should not be
taken too fast - and I think Viardo judges it just right. There are perfect
changes of mood, the direction and forward movement of the piece varying
as the poor old guitarist is interrupted. One minute a dance - then musing
on a love affair and then perhaps a cat call from an 'enfant méchant!'
Musicologists see this prelude as a 'sketch' for 'Iberia' or perhaps 'Images.'
'Les tierces alternées' is the only piece in this collection which
has been given a purely musical title which has a technical significance
This is a wonderful piece, in spite of the fact that it is little regarded
by most commentators. It is a technical tour de force. Listening to three
or four other versions of this piece I feel that Viardo equals Thiollier
and most others in the execution of this very difficult 'study'.
Of course there are wonderful things in the other 22 preludes. The recording
gets off to an excellent start with a very convincing account of 'Danseuses
de Delphes' and Viardo handles the peculiar subtleties of the whole-tone
scale in 'Voiles' in the best of impressionistic manners. I can really see
the sails on the English Channel on a hot summer's day. The famous, if not
hackneyed, 'La fille aux cheveux de lin' is played with an excellent feel
for the underlying words that Debussy is supposed to have paraphrased - "Love,
in the clear summer sun/Has sung with the lark". Viardo avoids the trap of
over sentimentalizing this piece.
Liszt seems to be the model for the interpretation of the 'Ce qu'a vu le
vent d'ouest'. The storm is here in all its fury and passion. This is perhaps
the key piece in Livre I. The pyrotechnics of the Hungarian master is also
well to the fore in the 'Feux d'artifice' - the last prelude of Livre II.
Humour is obvious in 'Général Lavine - eccentric' and a sense
of mischief in 'Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.D.C'.
This is an adventurous performance of these justly famous pieces. There is
such a vast degree of contrast in his performance. Viardo's pianissimos are
superb - almost 'niente' but not quite. Listen to the 'tres doux et tres
expressif' at the close of 'Canope', for example - or the perfect setting
down of parallel common chords in the same piece or in the 'La cathédrale
engloutie'. His glissandi are stunning.
We are treated to a whole gamut of sound qualities from this pianist. It
is a nuanced performance in every way imaginable. The recording is excellent
- except for one or two unusual noises in the bass -at least on my recording.
But that is not a big problem. I was used to the Martin Jones performance
that to me sounds as if it was played in a broom cupboard.
This recording goes on my list of 'favourite performance' for these pieces
- I also love the Naxos recording with Thiollier.
One final but important thought - I began by wondering if it was necessary
to play an entire 'Livre' in order to achieve musical cogency. I still believe
that is not absolutely necessary. However, Vladimir Viardo's account of these
wonderful Préludes is so internally consistent that I feel I may have
to review my thoughts about this particular contention - or is it prejudice?
Available in the UK from Seaford Music.
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