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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes Book 1 (1909-10) [40:02]
Trois Nocturnes (transcription by Maurice Ravel, 1909)* [23:33]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune (transcription by the composer, 1895)* [8:48]
Préludes Book 2 (1911-12) [40:01]
Alexei Lubimov, Alexei Zuev* (piano)
rec. April 2011, Sint-Pieterskerk, Leut, Belgium
ECM NEW SERIES 2241/42 (4764735) [63:35 + 48:49]

This is a recording which starts out being about the instruments on which it is played, and ends up being more about the music than anything else. The story goes that Alexei Lubimov encountered an old Steinway in the Polish Embassy in Brussels which is said to be the instrument Paderewski played in his recitals, and its effect on his playing stimulated him to re-think Debussy’s Préludes entirely, even after 40 years of playing them both in public and in private. This recording is therefore one performed on ‘period’ instruments, but listeners need have no fear of clunky old out-of-tune piles of what my friend Johan the piano calls ‘firewood’. If it were not for the rich timbral effects of which these instruments are capable, and which seem so in tune with the vocabulary that Debussy intended for his music and reportedly demonstrated in his own playing, then we wouldn’t be here at all - at least, not in the same way. The first thing which strikes you is indeed the rich piano sound, in the first book of Preludes a 1925 Bechstein which is “clear, sharply-etched, translucent and light, even in complex textures”, in the second book Lubimov plays the previously mentioned 1913 Steinway, which he describes as “divinely soft in pianissimo, resonant and marvellously suitable for unexpected colours.” Both instruments are heard in the arrangements for two pianos, Trois Nocturnes as transcribed by Ravel, and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
I am still highly impressed and somewhat under the spell of Roger Woodward’s Debussy Préludes (see review) which, lacking extras, fits onto a single disc. Not so long ago I also chanced upon a copy of Paul Jacobs’s recording on the Nonesuch label, which is also pretty miraculous, that is, if you can lay your hands on it. Woodward’s impressionism is heavier on pedalling than Lubimov, who creates atmosphere as well as maintaining clarity. This is not to say that Woodward’s playing isn’t clear, but he keeps us in a state of druggy wonder for longer periods, and is seemingly reluctant to offer the contrasts of texture which makes Lubimov more involving in the long run.
Alexei Lubimov might not be quite a household name to many, but he is widely recognised as an insightful interpreter of classical and baroque music, as well as being champion of new music, for instance performing the Moscow premières of new works by Terry Riley and John Cage as far back as 1968. Lubimov has been a significant interpreter of work from the former Soviet Union, something in which he and Roger Woodward share a common interest.
These Debussy recordings are remarkable for their fidelity to the letter and the spirit of the composer’s intentions. The opening Danseuses de Delphes is quite reserved and simple, and by no means the grandiose chorale as which it sometimes emerges. I love the way Lubimov brings out the jazzy elements in Les collines d’Anacapri, and his tumultuous Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest is a genuine assault on the senses.Only because I happened to have a score lying around, I point to La Cathédrale engloutie from book 1 of the Preludes as an example of both aspects of Lubimov’s playing - spirit and letter. Marked PP, the opening ‘ping’ of the initial chord might seem a little heavy, but it ensures the sustain which Debussy intends, the gently moving chords which follow creating the true dynamic. You can really hear the marqué definition where it is marked, the low C chimes are really stunning, the rests in the outer chords just in advance of the Un peu moins lent section at 3:06observed minutely, the subsequent build-up seemingly defying the decay of each note. The penultimate echo in advance of the final coda is gorgeous as well, the memory of the main theme carried over a rumble of sea in C.
If it’s orchestral piano you are looking for then the duo works which divide the books of Preludes are something special. Joined by his student and colleague Alexei Zuev, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in particular is a stunning example of how far two pianos can go in emulating a full orchestra. Admittedly it is the imagination, already infused with Debussy’s superb original orchestration, which adds extra layers of meaning to these piano sounds, but even without such associations I think we would accept this as a tremendous evocation and musical statement - perfectly suited to these instruments.
I have no doubt you could go through every piece and extrapolate significant observations, but the bottom line is that these are very fine performances indeed, and these venerable old grand pianos are very much alive and part of the entire creative process. The Steinway for the second book of Preludes is rather special indeed, warmly coloured, but with a depth and breadth of colour which expands the meaning and implication of the word resonance in this context. There is a fluid connection between registers in this piano which admits difference and contrast between low, middle and high, but which also connects and relates each in some intangible way which seems to set it apart from many a modern instrument. I am neither for nor against old or new when it comes to instruments of any kind, but I’ve heard and played enough different pianos to know how individual and special their characters can be. Here is a sound in which you can revel just as Lubimov clearly does, and absorb the different character of Debussy’s works as if by osmosis, from the melancholy of Feuilles mortes to the quirky “Général Lavine” - eccentric and lampooning of London’s pride in the Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. Yes indeed, there is great fun to be had here as well as a kind of total immersion in the shimmering imagery and seriousness of expression in these works which can sometimes make a rainy day seem even darker and wetter. The Feux d’artifice with which the cycle finishes is like an entire re-birth - we can all start re-thinking our Debussy after this recording, and the goalposts and boundary markers have all been picked up and moved yet again.
Beautifully presented in stylishly minimalist monochrome and provided with excellent booklet notes by Jürg Stenzl and a personal comment by Alexei Lubimov, this is a set to treasure and avoid getting covered in coffee stains and fingerprints at all costs. It commands respect and oozes quality on all fronts, and I’m already shortlisting it for disc of the decade, let alone the year.
Dominy Clements