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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes Book 2 [32:58]
En blanc et noir, for two pianos [15:33]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Daniele Pollini (piano I in En blanc et noir)
rec. 2016, Herkulessaal, Munich

Maurizio Pollini is an important interpreter of Debussy, and gave us recordings of the Études in 1993 and of Book1 of the Préludes in1999. Here he gives us Book 2 of the Préludes, a collection that has featured in his recital programmes of recent years. Released now in this anniversary year one hundred years after the composer’s death, it was set down in Munich back in 2016. The great qualities – and some of the reservations – that critics found in those earlier discs of Debussy will largely be found here also.

Pollini’s virtues are especially pertinent to the first of the Préludes, Brouillards. Despite that title (‘Mists’) there is little fogginess in this playing, with its sharp outlines, and glinting hard surfaces. This is no Whistler Nocturne but Debussy as modernist, and that is the quite legitimate way that Pollini seems to view the great Frenchman. In Feuilles mortes the ‘dead leaves’ rattle as much as rustle, so it does not evoke the mélancolique marking. La puerta del vino though is compelling in its Iberian colours and control of the omnipresent habanera rhythm. In Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses the fairies would be more exquisite dancers if they were a bit more léger, and more note had been taken of its “caressingly” instruction. Similarly, the sixth piece Bruyères is not quite the still lyrical centre of Book 2 here that others see it as.

The strutting General Lavine is as eccentric as the description suggests, a delightful comic portrait. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune lacks moonlit mystery despite the masterly control of the dynamic levels, and Ondine is not quite aquatic enough in its fluidity. Hommage à S Pickwick mixes humour and pathos in a Dickensian way – Claudio Arrau once claimed to have read the whole of The Pickwick Papers in pursuit of a full understanding of the piece. He also referred less to Debussy’s sensuality than to his spirituality, and in Canope Pollini finds something of that quality. Of course, his stirring virtuosity can be (almost) taken for granted in the coruscating accounts of Les tierces alternées and especially of Feux d’artifice.
Overall the strengths of Pollini’s formidable, accurate and imposing account of Book 2 will outweigh any reservations for his admirers, and I will return to this for its insights, especially into the more extrovert of the Préludes. For some pieces I wish he had taken a fraction more time to explore the many nuances, not so much of colour and texture, of which he is a master, but rather of phrasing. But then Pollini despatches the whole of Book 2 in just under 33 minutes, when many of the most admired accounts are around 38-40 minutes (Michelangeli, Zimerman, Bavouzet and many others). No time here to linger over any passing beauties in the score. The many descriptions of Debussy’s own magical soft playing – he played with the lid down and one critic said he would not be heard beyond the fifth row – and his injunction to “forget that the piano has hammers” influence some other artists perhaps more than they do Pollini.

For the two piano suite En blanc et noir Maurizio Pollini is joined by his son, conductor and pianist Daniele Pollini. They give a superb account of this late great, and still undervalued masterpiece. The first movement marked ‘Avec emportement’ (“With transport”) is magnificently played, its rapid succession of varied ideas given with an ideal sense of fantasy. The second movement, much the longest, evokes the composer’s distress at the war (the suite dates from 1915), and opens with chordal writing suggestive first of the grim events, then of bells tolling in sorrow at the losses. This is among the most moving music Debussy ever wrote, and the Pollinis’ account is an affecting one. The fast middle section (depicting battle) has real narrative verve and excitement. The Scherzando finale is more ambiguous, but the two pianists still manage to capture its elusive qualities.

There is good piano sound, clear and bright in the DG manner rather than warm, although with little sense of separation between the two pianos in the suite. The booklet notes are serviceable. The rare and possibly unique coupling makes a very good disc into a still more desirable one.

Roy Westbrook

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