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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes, Book I [41:15], Préludes, Book II [40:18]
Duncan Gifford (piano)
Recorded 5th and 6th September 1994 at the Eugene Goossens Hall of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 476 290-0 [41:15 + 40:18]


Gifford’s Debussy can be heard at its best in "Des pas sur la neige", the bleak landscape spread before us in all its sadness with its tolling two-note figure ever pervasive. Gifford is a sensitive pianist, undoubtedly, and he is also particularly successful with the half-grasped forms rising out of the mist in "Brouillards".

But there is more to Debussy than that, and in other moments I wish he would take us just a little further. The "Vent d’Ouest" is reasonably powerful but hardly dangerous and, while Puck dances prettily enough his feet remain on the ground. Above all in the humorous pieces I felt short-changed. The hapless serenader takes care not to shock his lady with his expletives and I well remember one of my own teachers, the inimitable Alexander Kelly, a well-loved figure at the RAM, improvising dirty words to the middle section of "Les collines d’Anacapri" in an attempt to get me to enter into its woozy-boozy music-hall spirit; Gifford is nice but nothing like that. And I remember another of my teachers, Colin Kingsley, for long a stalwart on the Edinburgh scene, telling me that I should make each new chord in "La fille aux cheveux de lin" sound as if I had discovered it in that moment. More easily said than done, but Gifford certain does not go beyond an air of gentle restraint.

In a way Book II is more disappointing still. It is sometimes said that Debussy himself is less consistently inspired here; the finest performances counter this idea, revealing that he has actually embraced a wider range, which is therefore harder for one performer to penetrate. Again, Gifford is pleasant but too much is missing. After his well-managed "Brouillards", "Feuilles mortes" continues in the same way, yet surely it should be straining towards Franckian lyricism if it is not to hang fire. The fairies dance reasonably exquisitely at the beginning and end but they lie down on the grass for a nap in the middle, Général Lavine is an amiable enough chap but hardly an eccentric and the moonlight audiences seem scarcely spellbound by what they hear – much of this piece is woefully slow. A comparison with Gieseking in any of these makes Gifford sound rather pointless.

The recording seems reticent in the same way, gentle in the softer passages, reluctant to deliver in the heavier ones, though at times it is difficult to tell whether this is not simply a faithful reproduction of how Gifford plays (the tame "sff sec" in b.10 of Général Lavine must surely be laid at his door), for just sometimes there are arresting moments and when he finally comes out of his shell in "Feux d’artifice" the sound has sufficient body and brilliance.

Of course, Gieseking’s is not the only way (but Gifford’s approach has a controlled classicism which suggests the comparison). Some time ago I welcomed a set played by Fou Ts’ong which, by presenting a more brightly lit, boisterous view than usual, succeeded in saying a good deal about the music. I can’t find any special interpretative vision here and, considering that the recording was made over ten years ago I wonder why it has turned up now. Surely we need to hear Gifford’s latest thoughts, if he is now able to probe more deeply into the music (he has been working with Joaquin Soriano since 1997 so surely there must be more colour to his playing nowadays?), or to forget about him if he can’t. The booklet notes are unusually detailed and contain much interesting information, but that hardly affects the situation. The timings, like virtually everything else here, could have delivered more (the Fou Ts’ong set has the Etudes as well).

Christopher Howell

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