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Primeval Sounds
Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1917):

Douze Préludes: Livre 1 (1910) [47:13]
George CRUMB (b. 1929):

Makrokosmos I Twelve Fantasy Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano (1972) [31:46]
Enrico Belli (piano)
rec. La Fenice, Aamandola, Italy, August 2005. DDD
WERGO WER 6804 2 [44:55 + 40:03]

A note on the back cover of this set states: "the performance proceeds by alternating single pieces from the two cycles, favoring a spiral process of similitudes and contrasts: an attempt to highlight the connections between the two composers."

This bothers me. It’s akin to going to a first performance and the composer tells you that his new piece is an attempt to write a symphony, or a cantata or any piece of music. What the hell has the composer been doing with his time that he has been unable to complete a finished piece of work instead of delivering to us an attempt at a composition? It seems at the very least unfortunate that he has not been able to give his time to writing a rounded, satisfying work of music. Likewise, before making this recording didn’t pianist Enrico Belli have some idea as to whether or not the juxtaposition of Crumb’s and Debussy’s pieces would highlight the connection between the two composers? He must have had some idea. I only needed to hear these disks once to be able to make that decision, so the time Belli spent rehearsing the works was spent in a vacuum, without thought for the different aspects of the various musics under his fingers and in his head.

Let’s look at the Debussy Préludes first. For me, these twelve pieces, much more than the second book, contain everything that is essential for piano playing and composition in the next century. The range of the pieces if phenomenal, from playful (Les Collines d'Anacapri and La danse de Puck) to petrifying (Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest), impressionistic (Voiles and La cathédrale engloutie) to the music hall (Minstrels), pretty (La fille aux cheveux de lin) to end-of-the-world apocalyptic (Des pas sur la niege). Debussy knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote these masterpieces and there isn’t an ounce of fat in any of them – every note, every silence, every comma, every breath is essential. It takes a pianist of great intellect and intelligence to even come near to what the composer wants us to know and understand on our journey through his music. Enrico Belli is most certainly not that pianist. His biggest problem is that he refuses to play any of the Préludes at Debussy’s tempi and he seems happier when he isn’t hamstrung by such petty restrictions as metronome marks. As soon as I heard the first two chords of Danseuses de Delphes (the first Prélude) I knew something was wrong so after sampling a couple I thought that I would see just how far off the mark, in terms of tempi, Belli is. Below I show Debussy’s metronome markings, and I say again, Debussy knew what he was doing, against Belli’s chosen tempi.
1 Danseuses de Delphes
Debussy: crochet = 44
Belli: crochet = 18
2 Voiles
Debussy: quaver = 88
Belli: quaver = 72
3 Le Vent dans la plaine
Debussy: crochet = 126
Belli: crochet = 99
4 Les Sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir
Debussy: crochet = 84
Belli: crochet = 52
5 Les Collines d'Anacapri
Debussy: quaver = 184
Belli: quaver = 156
6 Des pas sur la niege
Debussy: crochet = 44
Belli: crochet = 31
7 Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest
Debussy: no metronome mark (animé et tumultueux)
Belli: crochet = 72
8 La fille aux cheveux de lin
Debussy: crochet = 66
Belli: crochet = 43
9 La Sérenade interrompue
Debussy: no metronome mark (Modérément animé)
Belli: quaver = 162
10 La cathédrale engloutie
Debussy: no metronome mark (Profondément calme)
Belli: crochet = 70
11 La danse de Puck
Debussy: quaver = 138
Belli: quaver = 128
12 Minstrels
Debussy: no metronome mark (Modéré)
Belli: crochet = 77

Belli is consistently slow and uses rubato to such an extent that in the first four bars of no.6 the music is simply grotesque, being held back deliberately, and the triplet in bar three isn’t even! And it’s like this all the time. He’s best in the pieces which don’t have metronome markings as he can play more freely. However, in bar 41 of no.7 he plays a chord which Debussy didn’t write and certainly isn’t in the score – and I have played this to others who have heard it quite clearly. And in no.9 he ignores bar 4, which is important. I need not say any more.

If you want Book 1 of the Préludes buy either Michaelangeli (coupled with both books of Images Deutsche Grammophon 477 5345) – a magisterial performance - or Roy Howat (coupled with six other works including the première recording of Les soirs illumines par l'ardeur du charbon (1917) Tall Poppies 164). Incidentally, Howat has recorded Debussy’ complete piano works for Tall Poppies and it’s a fine set, well worth the investment. One simple example of why these two pianists are far superior to Belli. My favourite Prélude has always been Des pas sur la niege – a piece of monumental simplicity which encapsulates the whole world. With both Michelangeli and Howat I feel myself to be in some distant empty landscape in my bare feet, thinking about my lot, my footprints clearly seen in the snow. With Belli, I’m in the middle of Wolverhampton in wellies.

George Crumb has a reputation as a composer of hauntingly beautiful scores and I imagine that most of us discovered his work with the Nonesuch recording of Ancient Voices of Children (1970) (originally Nonesuch 71255 (LP - 1975), now Elektra Nonesuch 9-79149-2 (CD)), quickly followed by Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971) for Three masked players (electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano).

Makrokosmos I was written for David Burge, who also gave the première and recorded the work two years later, in 1974 (Nonesuch H-71293 (LP only)). Crumb has written that "The title and format of my Makrokosmos reflect my admiration for two great 20th-century composers of piano music -- Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy. I was thinking, of course, of Bartók's Mikrokosmos and Debussy's 24 Préludes (a second zodiacal set, Makrokosmos, Volume II, was completed in 1973, thus forming a sequence of 24 "fantasy-pieces"). However, these are purely external associations, and I suspect that the "spiritual impulse" of my music is more akin to the darker side of Chopin, and even to the child-like fantasy of early Schumann." In light of this I think we can be assured that the attempt described on the CD inlay has failed – the only connection between the Debussy Préludes and the Makrokosmos cycle is purely external, and the composer should know.

Like the Debussy Préludes these 12 Makrokosmos are miniatures - they range in playing time from just under two minutes to just over five. In general the style is simple and straight forward with the usual avant garde tricks of loud, fast movement high on the keyboard, the pianist shouting into the strings, a chain placed on the piano strings, but somehow Crumb makes what could be a ragbag of clichés into something rather beautiful, modern music which appeals to the emotions. There’s not much substance to these pieces but they are enjoyable – and surely that’s what’s important.

I have no idea as to whether Belli plays these pieces well, but in light of the poor performance of the Debussy I cannot bring myself to expect you to buy a double CD set (and short measure in terms of playing time at that) just for the Crumb. There are at least seven other recordings on CD of this work, and all of them are coupled with Makrokosmos, Volume II - Jo Boatright (Music and Arts (1999)), Bojan Gorisek (Audiophile Classics 103301 (1997)), Emmy Henz-Diemand (Musiques Suisses 6091-2 (1994)), Laurie Hudicek (Furious Artisans FACD 6805 (2002)), Jeffrey Jacob (Centaur 2050 (1990)), Christiane Mathe (Koch Schwann 364092-2 (1997)) and Robert Nasveld (Attacca Babel 9371/2 (1993) – a much better bet all round - go for one of them.

Bob Briggs


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