Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett



Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Préludes, Books 1 and 2, Etudes, Books 1 and 2
Fou Ts’ong (pianoforte)
Recorded at Polish Radio, Warsaw, no date
MERIDIAN CDE 84483/4-2 [2 CDs: 66’15"+70’56"]

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Though the public has always preferred the Préludes to the Etudes – a fair number of the composer’s best known pieces are to be found in the first book of the former – I wonder if Fou Ts’ong feels especially drawn to the Etudes. He responds vividly and precisely to their wayward humour, their love of strange note-patterns and their wry, acerbic harmonies. He does not attempt misty, half-heard sonorities, but his sound retains a glistening quality which compels the attention.

And I think it is to this side of the Préludes that he responds in particular. He is unfailingly effective in the humoristic ones such as La sérénade interrompue, Minstrels or Général Lavine; and in Hommage à S. Pickwick he scores a success with what is generally considered to be one of Debussy’s weaker pieces. Equally fine are those which call for élan or joi de vivreLes Collines d’Anacapri and La Danse de Puck, for example. He is not afraid to play out when the marking is mezzo forte or forte and, while his pedalling is very subtle, he also keeps many passages clean – try the opening of Feux d’Artifice – which are often covered in a haze of pedal. He can sometimes seem to lack the subtle half-lights – his fairies in Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses are a surprisingly riotous lot, in contrast to the sensitive and poetic, even if robust, treatment of Ondine. He creates an exquisitely beautiful atmosphere in Des pas sur la neige, and produces some ravishingly poetical atmospheres in the later stages of La terrasse des audiences, making his slightly arid and over-present treatment of the opening pages the more puzzling. One appreciates that he does not want to sentimentalise La fille aux cheveux de lin, but here and in Bruyères he verges on the uncaring.

These twenty-four Préludes cover a wide poetic spectrum and many famous recordings of them have been made. Probably no single version is going to provide the unanswerably definitive solution to each piece, or even one listener’s favourite interpretation of each single one. It is likely that any version will have a few disappointments along the way. I shall never throw away my Gieseking, and those few left us by Guido Agosti should be heard. But Fou Ts’ong now joins the elect and whenever I am considering Debussy interpretation his will be among the versions I shall want to hear. It is particularly recommended if you want your Debussy fairly up-front and hedonistic (but sometimes also mischievous); maybe a little less so if your preference is for something more intangible. The very fine recording is a further attraction. I quote Peter Charleton’s note about Feuilles mortes and leave you to decide whether this sort of thing (there is one for every Prélude) will increase the value of the package.

A terrible portrayal of despair, the poet’s mind seeing in "Dead Leaves" a life sunk into a brittle shell tossed and scuttling on the sodden ground. A quickened pace bestirs us from self-contemplation. A shaft of light penetrates but then it fades. The leaves are again noticed but somehow they are now different.

But to give Charleton his due, his generalised introductory comments to both the Préludes and the Etudes are helpful. A little more care over the booklet production would not have come amiss. Debussy’s middle name appears as "Achile" and the date of his death, correctly given on the cover, is anticipated to 1917 in the notes.

Christopher Howell

 


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