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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
L’Isle Joyeuse [6.02]
Deux Arabesques [7:28]
Suite Bergamasque [16:38]
Estampes: Jardins sous la pluie [3.34]
Images, 2nd Série: Cloches à travers les feuilles [4.07]; Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut [5.14]; Poissons d’or [3.59]
Hommage à Haydn [2.12]
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
rec. 2018, Dobbiaco, Italy
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902309 [54.10]

In this recording Nikolai Lugansky offers his own special tribute on the 100-year anniversary of Debussy’s death. Lugansky is one of the grand standard bearers of the Russian piano school and is renowned for his performances of Rachmaninov. I have not heard him in French repertoire as often as I would like and was intrigued by how he would approach these works, spanning a wide range of the composer’s creative output.

The level of technical polish in this recording is outstanding throughout and the playing is admirably clear. A cool Gallic reserve permeates many of the works and Lugansky pays close attention to the composer’s detailed markings. The performances of the composer’s earlier works, including the two arabesques and the Suite Bergamasque, are as good as any I have heard although I was not quite so convinced by the later works.

Lugansky opens his recital with ‘L’Isle Joyeuse’ which the composer wrote in 1903. The piece was inspired by Watteau’s painting L’Embarquement pour Cythère but “with less melancholy than in Watteau”. There is a wonderful sense of capricious abandon about this performance and the finger-work is dazzling. The quieter, more lyrical episodes are beautifully restrained although I would have liked to hear more of Debussy’s intoxicating fragrances. The final section is a joyous virtuoso tour de force which would bring the house down in a live recital.

Debussy’s wrote his two Arabesques at the end of the 1880s and intended the pieces as both a tribute to Schumann and an evocation of the melodic curve. In the E Major Arabesque, Lugansky draws artfully shaped lines and coaxes luminous colours from his Steinway. The music is exquisite and uplifting and has a wonderful natural flow. In the second G Major Arabesque the articulation is crisp and delightful and Debussy’s notes spring from the page.

The Suite Bergamasque is a homage to the Fêtes galantes and 18th Century French keyboard composers. The most famous piece in the Suite is of course Debussy’s immortal ‘Clair de lune’ which he originally entitled ‘Promenade sentimentale’ after a poem by Paul Verlaine. It was a good decision to entitle this recording Suite Bergamasque as Lugansky’s performance of the work is magnificent. He pays scrupulous attention to the composer’s myriad contrasts and dynamic shadings in the Prelude and the performance is one of pristine perfection. The shifting textures of the Menuet are executed brilliantly and the playful and dramatic elements of the music are artfully realised.

‘Clair de lune’ is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written but it receives here a completely fresh, unhackneyed performance. Lugansky invests the opening chords with an other-worldly beauty and there is a sense of wonderment and rapture as the music evolves. The final Passepied with its staccato left-hand quavers has a gentle rhythmic bounce and glides along in an enchanting way. There are gorgeous shifts in textures and sonority and one cannot help but be swept along on the musical currents.

Lugansky offers us the third of Debussy’s musical engravings or Estampes, ‘Jardins sous la pluie’, rather than the whole triptych. The toccata figurations are played with alacrity and it is difficult to fault Lugansky’s playing from a technical point of view. However, the performance is a little too literal and I would have liked a more vivid realisation of Debussy’s shifting weather patterns (compare Steven Osborne more colourful and picturesque performance). ‘La plus que lent’ is more successful, with Lugansky bringing enormous freedom and naturalness to the shifting pulse of the music. It is difficult to think of ‘Hommage à Haydn’ being played with more polish than it is here.

Debussy’s second set of Images was written in 1907 and they are among his greatest piano works. ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ depicts the sound of bells ringing through falling autumn leaves during vespers on All Saints Day. Lugansky’s evocation of the melancholy atmosphere and layering of sound is second to none while the sound of the bells piercing through the falling leaves is magical. Lugansky’s tone in ‘La lune descend sur le temple quit fut’ is ravishing, while the depiction of the mysterious scene with its gamelan effects is striking. ‘Poissons d’or’ with its shimmering aquatic effects is performed with virtuoso élan although I would have liked to hear a little more of the caprice in this piece. There are many fine performances of this work and Lugansky stands alongside the best although Michelangeli brings a wider range of sonorities while Ogawa’s performance is more sensitive and imaginative.

Overall, this is a very fine recording and the Suite Bergamasque in particular is superb.

Robert Beattie


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