Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Starry Night
Estampes [15:05]
Arabesque no.1 in E [4:17]
Golliwog’s Cakewalk [3:05]
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon [2:34]
Nuits d’étoiles (arr. Attwood) [4:36]
Préludes, Book 1 [39:22]
Michael Lewin (piano)
rec. 2014, Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, USA
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92190 CD & BD-A [68:56]
This issue’s title “Starry Night” refers to its track 7, which contains a rather lovely arrangement for piano by Koji Attwood of Debussy’s song Nuit d’étoiles, written when he was about eighteen years of age. This makes an interesting conclusion to the group of four short pieces that separate the two main items in Michael Lewin's programme. Those main items are the three movements of Estampes (“Prints”) of 1903, and the twelve great Préludes of Book 1 from 1910.

This is Lewin’s fourth studio recording for Sono Luminus, providing the companion disc to his critically-praised “Beau Soir” published last year, which featured Book 2 of the Préludes. The current CD opens with Estampes, its three movements entitled Pagodes (“Pagodas”), La soirée dans Grenade (“Evening in Granada”), and Jardins sous la pluie (“Gardens in the Rain”). Then follows "Arabesque No.1 in E Major" (1888), familiar to pianists of more modest technical resources. After the popular "Golliwog's cake walk” of 1908 comes one of the most intriguing pieces on the recording; Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (“Evenings lit by the warmth of coal”) is one of Debussy’s very last compositions, and is a poignantly lovely piece. In 1917, the composer was not only suffering along with his compatriots from the depredations of war, but was in the advanced stages of cancer, from which he died the following year. A friend and admirer of his, who happened to be a coal merchant, supplied him with some desperately needed fuel to keep himself warm, and Debussy expressed his gratitude by presenting him with this tiny work. The title is taken from Baudelaire’s poem 'Le Balcon' (“The Balcony”); what hasn’t been widely noted is that Debussy alludes to the fourth Prélude from Book 1 (track 11), Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (“Sounds and Scents Swirl in the Evening Air”), a title itself taken from another Baudelaire poem, Harmonie du soir.

All the short pieces are played with affection and style; but the disc stands or falls by Lewin's account of Estampes and, especially, the Préludes, which are among the pinnacles of the piano repertoire. I was hugely impressed, and enjoyed this playing enormously. Lewin's approach is one that the composer himself, who often complained bitterly about the pianists who attempted his music, would surely have warmly welcomed. He is careful to avoid exaggeration or distortion, but is sensitive to all the magical colours created by the music. I don’t think I have heard Des pas sur la neige (“Footsteps in the snow”) played with more devastating bleakness, its final D minor chord like a block of ice. From that, the change to the tender simplicity of La fille aux cheveux de lin (“Girl with the flaxen hair”) is heart-wrenching.

I am glad that Lewin has adopted the correct tempi for La cathédrale engloutie (“Submerged Cathedral). It was Roy Howat, in the notes for his fine Debussy set on Tall Poppies (TP164) who pointed out that the printed music for this famous piece was misleading in its indications of speed, resulting in performances which were too slow, and often up to twice as long as the composer intended. Lewin’s performance is powerful and majestic, but also avoids pummelling the piano into submission, as some players can’t resist doing.

All of these wonderful Preludes provide memorable experiences, and Lewin rises magnificently to the challenge of their pictorial and poetic qualities. His technique is fully equal to the demands of Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (“What the West Wind Saw”), with its turbulence and extreme contrasts. He also captures brilliantly the Will o’ the Wisp mischief of La danse de Puck (“Puck’s Dance”), its dancing gossamer textures interrupted by the call of Oberon’s horn.

The recording of Lewin at his Model D Steinway is excellent; at first I thought it might be a little too close-up, but by the end I was thoroughly convinced. That perspective gives the music an intimacy which draws the listener in effortlessly.

This is a very distinguished recording, an outstanding addition to the Debussy discography, and certainly a worthy successor to last year’s ‘Beau Soir’ (Sono Luminus DSL92175).

The CD comes with an audio Blu-Ray version of the same recording. I do not have the equipment to play this at present so cannot comment or compare.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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