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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Estampes [13:47]
Images, Bk.II [14:34]
Préludes, Bk.II [39:34]
Russell Sherman (piano)
rec. 27-29 July 2005, Jordan Hall, Boston, USA. DDD
AVIE AV2164 [68:01]

Experience Classicsonline

Of all the great composers for the piano, Debussy is the most elusive for the performer. A transcendental technique must be taken as read, yet the music grants few opportunities to revel in bravura for its own sake. Above all, it requires an extraordinary imaginative response - from listener as well as pianist - and an intensity of concentration that can draw an audience into the experience.

Louis Laloy, Debussy’s first biographer, revealed in 1909 that the composer received his most profitable lessons from poets and painters, not from musicians. Debussy himself told Edgar Varèse in 1911 ‘I love pictures almost as much as music’. He met Toulouse-Lautrec, knew both Maurice Denis and Whistler - from whom he borrowed the title of his Nocturnes. He probably met Gauguin, who had a ‘mania for relating painting to music’ and likened colours to instrumental timbres.

So any interpreter who takes on Debussy must be able to project these ‘visual’ qualities vividly. This is the first time I have encountered Russell Sherman on disc, but it seems clear to me that he possesses all these necessary qualities. The three Estampes (literally ‘Engravings’) of 1903 are sharply characterised, with an especially powerful realisation of Pagodes, an oriental evocation by means of the pentatonic scale. Sherman brings out the intimidatingly alien feeling of the music, while in Poissons d’or (Goldfish) from the second book of Images, he captures perfectly the creatures’ sparkling, quixotic movements.

The same type of sensitive response to the images of this amazing music is there in all Sherman’s performances. His Puerta del Viño from Book 2 of the Preludes is a tour de force of light and dark, of brilliance and despair. I admit I was relieved, in a way, to arrive at Bruyères (‘Briars’) on track 11, for this is the first truly relaxed work on the disc. It is in truth a sort of companion piece to La fille aux cheveux de lin from Book One, and Sherman fills it with appropriate charm and delicate humour, while avoiding coy sentimentality.

It is said that Prelude 10, Canope, named after the ancient Egyptian city, was inspired by the contemplation of two ancient Canopean jar-lids that Debussy kept on his work-desk. Certainly this is one of his most austere and enigmatic pieces, and once more, Sherman finds exactly the right timing and tonal gradation for it to make its effect. His voicing of the parallel chords is a joy – and this ability to sense the perspectives in the music, to give a graphic sense of foreground and background, is utterly transfixing in the final prelude Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) too. As the display fades – or rather, we seem to move further away from it - there is the most fleeting of allusions to La Marseillaise, barely perceptible. Once more, by the subtlety of his touch, Sherman finds the exact poetic tone to communicate the scene and its emotions.

The sound of the piano is perfectly captured by the Avie technicians; the harp-like resonance of the strings in the softer music is so important, and it has been recorded exceptionally well, as have the fierce fortissimo moments.

There are so many great interpretations on disc of these works – to name but a few, Thibaudet, Arrau, and, perhaps greatest of all, Gieseking. But Sherman can certainly hold his own in such exalted company. On hearing this disc, I was once again awe-struck by the power of Debussy’s musical imagery; no praise for a performer can be higher than that.

Gwyn Parry-Jones





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