Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Preludes: Book I (1910) [35.54]; *Book II (1913) [33.30]
Walter Gieseking (piano)
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 12-16 August 1953 and *9-10 December 1954
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM 061 [69.34]
These performances constituted my first encounter with the Debussy Préludes on record. It is a delight to be able to meet them again in such fine new re-masterings.
In the intervening years we have encountered a great many approaches to this music, ranging from highly scented romantic impressionism to a strictly literal interpretation of the notes on the page. This is indeed music that can admit of a wide range of stylistic pianism. These Gieseking recordings remain a monument to a great artist whose Debussy was always highly admired in its day, and commands attention nearly sixty years later.
Earlier transfers of this material have however not always been wholly successful in capturing the original quality of the performances. Even in their day, I suspect these were not among the highest fidelity recordings, and the mono sound has tended to underline Gieseking’s sometimes unexpectedly fast traversal of the scores making some passages sound rather superficial. These carefully engineered transfers totally change that. The recordings sound fresh and full of life; they remain mono, but they could have been set down ten years ago, not sixty. There is a ring to the higher notes which produces a tangible sense of ecstasy, and the piano sounds realistically placed in a resonant acoustic - earlier EMI transfers from the original tapes have had a sense of confinement in a smaller room than one would find ideal in this music.
A transfer like this moves Gieseking’s recordings of the Préludes out of the historical category, and brings them back into real contention as an interpretation of the music which can challenge many modern readings. Taking them on this level, one must admit that sometimes his speeds are a bit brisker than we would expect nowadays. That is of no real consequence; these are performances that are classics in every sense of the word. The sleeve note quotes from the Gramophone review of 1955: “Only a supremely optimistic or a very vain pianist will attempt to record these Preludes now that Gieseking has done so.” Well, one is grateful for the many pianists who have subsequently essayed these works; but Gieseking remains a benchmark by which his ‘optimistic’ or ‘vain’ successors can be measured.
The notes on the transfers comment that the original recordings “captured the energetic breaths of the performer”, which “I have not attempted to excise.” Well, nobody in their senses would listen all the way through this CD desperately trying to catch hints of such extraneous noises; and I have to say that if they were still present I didn’t notice them. The sleeve states that there are full programme notes available online, but when I looked these consisted solely of links to the relevant Wikipedia articles and copies of the scores from ISMLP.
This is a glorious release.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
This is a glorious release with a tangible sense of ecstasy and piano realistically placed in a resonant acoustic.