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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes Books I (1909-10) and II (1911-13) [77:28]
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du chabon (1917) [2:18]
Craig Sheppard (piano)
rec. live, 22-23 October 2012, Meany Theater, Seattle
ROMÉO RECORDS 7297 [79:42]

Two distinguished pianists have brought out Debussy discs recently; Carlo Grante on Music & Arts and Craig Sheppard on Roméo Records. Sheppard has thought hard about the Préludes and has written his own highly engaging and entertaining notes. He, like Grante, shares an aesthetic position that is aligned more with Walter Gieseking than with pianists who had actually played for Debussy, such as the American George Copeland, or who had known him briefly, such as Daniel Ericourt (1903-98) who had turned the pages for the composer at the premiere of Debussy’s Cello Sonata.
Thus it is not a question of tempo, more of timbral weight, colour, pedalling and expression. Ericourt [Ivory Classics 73006; 4 CDs], recorded back in 1960, is actually significantly slower than Sheppard in Les danseuses de Delphes for example. Sheppard’s sound world is evocative, limpid and nuanced with a greater use of the pedal, and such qualities illuminate Voiles with great beauty. Sheppard’s diaphanous aesthetic, at its apogee perhaps in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, can here be explicitly contrasted with that of Ericourt, who embodies a tradition altogether sparer, though one that does not lack for delicacy, even as it avoids transparency. Where Sheppard finds verdant warmth in Les collines d’Anacapri Ericourt finds a much brisker and crisper terrain, and similarly Ericourt can be starker, indeed harder in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. In La cathédrale engloutie the richness of Sheppard’s finely balanced pianism again contrasts with Ericourt. That expert Debussian Copeland, who had played for the composer back in 1911, sounds, tonally speaking, half way between the two, though his 1933 recording [Pearl GEMM 0001] sounds a bit rushed.If one feels Sheppard not quite puckish enough in La danse de Puck, maybe he is structurally and emotively reserving himself for the last of Book I, Minstrels which he plays with great drollery at a more relaxed tempo than Ericourt.
These qualities apply equally to Book II. Ericourt is more explicitly eccentric in terms of voicings and rhythm in General Lavine where his cooler, indeed brasher aesthetic is especially bracing. But Sheppard derives from a different approach to Debussy playing and his tonal allure sits more in today’s mainstream, if one put it that way; thus he avoids Ericourt’s greater blatancy in the Hommage à S. Pickwick and though they take the same tempo forFeux d’artifice, Sheppard and Ericourt are worlds apart tonally in their respective performances. As an encore Sheppard gives us the composer’s final piece for piano.  

Jonathan Woolf