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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Works Volume 4
Préludes: Book I [35:07]
Préludes: Book II [32:52]
François-Joël Thiollier (piano)
rec. 25-27 September 1996, Temple Saint Marcel, Paris
NAXOS 8.553293 [70:23]

In the CD age, recordings of the Debussy Préludes divide into those that fit onto a single CD and those that don’t. Some of the latter are not far off the 90-minute mark, while Thiollier’s 70:23 almost looks like short measure! Timings obviously don’t tell us everything, but we might take as our starting point the consideration that Thiollier’s overall length – the individual pieces are another matter – has a certain authority on its side, since it is practically identical with that of the legendary Gieseking. The latter can be marvellously volatile while retaining such poise as never to seem hurried. I have not heard the recordings by Robert Casadesus, which I understand are slightly swifter still. Casadesus had been a friend of Ravel, and significantly, Thiollier studied with Casadesus at the Juilliard School. So his credentials in this repertoire have to be taken very seriously even though, as we have seen in earlier volumes, he also has a tendency to interpolate expressive freedoms of his own. I have already discussed the matter of timings in my review of a recording allegedly by Joyce Hatto. This latter mainly takes tempi close to the Gieseking tradition, but expresses a sunnier, more relaxed view. Internal variations of tempo within the single preludes are smaller, resulting in a timing of 75:08.

But apart from the stopwatch, is it possible to verify the correctness or not of these tempi? Well, we might take a look at the score. For seven of the preludes in the first book – but only one in the second – Debussy provided metronome markings. Now heaven forbid that this music should actually be played metronomically and in fact the Modéré (quaver/eighth note = 88) of Voiles has added in brackets after it Dans un rythme sans rigueur et caressant. Still, you’d think the markings must mean something. The first prelude, Danseuses de Delphes, is marked Lent et grave, as well as doux et soutenu, but it is also a dance, however mysterious and shadowy a one, and Debussy thought 44 to the crotchet/fourth-note quite slow enough. Most performances are far slower than my metronome will tick and even Gieseking was fairly measured here. “Hatto” was nearer the mark. I haven’t actually checked Thiollier against the metronome but he sounds about right and his timing shaves about fifty seconds off Gieseking, thirty off “Hatto”. At last it no longer remains true that if I want to hear this prelude at the tempo Debussy asked for, I have to play it myself. But on the other hand, if I want to hear the tempo Debussy asked for and the dynamics he wrote I still have to play it myself, since Thiollier adds some expressive bulges of his own, for example where the melody goes up high at the bottom of the first page and Debussy asks for a consistent pianissimo. Still, the idea is right and I don’t want to give the impression that these performances systematically reinvent Debussy’s dynamic markings; elsewhere Thiollier is often more observant of them.

Where no metronome mark is given, Debussy’s prescribed tempi can possibly be interpreted in the light of the evidence that he didn’t want his tempi too slow. Brouillards, the first prelude of book two, is marked Modéré and Thiollier’s swirling mists are surely preferable to the dead slow performances which serve only to analyze the bitonality on which the music is based. On the other hand, a few of Thiollier’s tempi are a shade too easy-flowing even for me. I did like his La terrasse des audiences, which some may find insufficiently timeless. It is marked Lent, but as the time is 6/8 it is the dotted crotchets/fourth-notes that should be slow, not the single quavers/eighth-notes. But Canope is surely a bit too much of an Andante to be Très calme et doucement triste. Better this than dragging it out interminably, however.

Something curious happens in La cathédrale engloutie. In the passage near the beginning where a chant theme is heard against high bells – bb.7-13 for readers with scores – Thiollier doubles the tempo, as he does for similar passages elsewhere. I understand a piano roll exists of Debussy doing something of the kind, or could Ravel have told Casadesus that this was how Debussy played it? The result in performance is completely convincing.

My only reservations, tempo-wise, are in a few pieces where a straightforward dance rhythm seems called for. The fairies in Book II/4 seem not so much exquisite dancers as schoolchildren on half-term holiday – Gieseking’s ethereal poise is still the ideal here – and the Minstrels risk tripping over one another. The blues theme near the end is marvellously done, however. More often than not, though, I find Thiollier marvellously responsive to Debussy’s genius.

He is helped by a recording that recaptures, but in modern sound, much of the gentle translucency of Gieseking’s 50-year-old recordings. All too often, recent recordings of this music, however magnificent in their way, give the piano a physical presence which seems inimical to Debussy’s world.

A word about pedalling, since this is a matter which has been raised on this site. Thiollier, like Gieseking, uses a great deal, though without any of the messiness which sometimes results from lesser attempts to follow this lineage. Some have suggested, however, that a clearer, drier style is in order, and that Gieseking’s supposed supremacy in this repertoire has distorted our ideas of the music.

In one sense, the scores help us very little here. There is only one actual pedal marking by Debussy in the whole of the two books of preludes – at the end of Les sons et les parfums. There are plenty of implicit pedal markings, though, when a chord is marked to be sustained and the hand that is supposed to be sustaining it is required to do other things at the other end of the keyboard. Obviously, the chord must be sustained with the pedal or, if things get too swimmingly dissonant, sustained as far as possible with nifty little half-pedals. But if you do this only where specifically called for and keep things clear and dry elsewhere, there will be too much disparity between the actual sound of pedalled and unpedalled passages. Let’s take a specific example – La puerta del Vino. The persistent habanera rhythm in the bass has its third and fourth notes marked staccato. On an old Saga LP, Livia Rev took this literally, making it crisp and dry without a touch of pedal. Debussy then adds two further elements: the long, sinuous melody that gradually develops into arabesques, and the chords in between. You can sustain all this with just the fingers up till a certain point, then as the arabesques start you have to use at least some pedal or you’ll lose the chord in the middle. And bang goes your dry staccato. Rev manages to keep her staccato better than most of us could, I will say that. Then comes a sudden fortissimo chord, which has to be sustained while the left hand takes up the habanera again. Lev manages to keep it crisp and dry even here. Evidently she is sustaining the chord with the Steinway third pedal, which was coming in by Debussy’s time, but which he apparently didn’t like. So I don’t think he really wanted this solution. Gieseking et al doubtless felt that, since the pedal has to be brought in at some stage, then it should be there from the start, so the habanera rhythm does not change character with the introduction of the pedal. It can also be argued that Debussy had in mind the throbbing of a distant guitar, which cannot damp its sound like a piano, and the staccato dots indicate a type of touch rather than a literal separation of the notes. I have no doubt which approach I prefer. Rev was very clever to keep it all so clear, but did she not notice how desiccated it sounded?

The question of touch, though, is fundamental. With a suitably transparent touch, it is surprising how much the pedal can be used without confusion. This is why those who imitate Gieseking’s pedalling but not his touches create disorderly cathedrals of sound, and then slow down their tempi in the hope that more of the notes will be heard. None of this applies to Thiollier. For those who don’t always want to listen to a fifty-year-old recording, despite a few reservations this seems to me as good a modern alternative to Gieseking as you are likely to get. A slightly sunnier, calmer view, still using authentic tempi, was offered by the “Hatto”. It has been suggested that this may be at least partly the work of Izumi Tateno. I am trying to obtain this and I hope to comment later. In the meantime, if a volatile view appeals to you, don’t hesitate.

Christopher Howell

Earlier reviews of this series:

Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3



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