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Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)
Préludes Livres I & II

Vladimir Viardo
Pro Piano PPR224525
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 advised.

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 agency.

They have an attractive web site at

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?

John France 


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