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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes - Book 1 [43:59]
Préludes - Book 2 [42:36]
Children’s Corner [18:12]
Paavali Jumppanen (piano)
rec. 2016, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, Germany
ONDINE ODE13042D [2 CDs: 104:47]

Paavali Jumppanen is quite some pianist. I first encountered him on his DG recording of the three piano sonatas of Pierre Boulez – which the composer is said to have asked him to record, and one can hear why on that stunning disc. Since he can play those, the Debussy Préludes should be well within his compass technically, and so it proves. But there is more to music than its technical demands, of course, and especially perhaps to this music, with its many subtleties of nuance and mood and meaning. These 24 piano miniatures, published in two books in 1910 and 1913, are very varied in style, with titles linking them to literature, poetry, nature, and landscape. For all that variety, which invites players to pick and choose among them, they are also true cycles, and the composer gave some thought to the sequence in each book. They make a satisfying sequence, not unlike the Chopin set of 24 Préludes, which Debussy had been editing just before embarking on his own works.

Jumppanen apparently often performs the cycles of Préludes and the Études from Debussy’s later years, and it shows in these performances. He is quite inside the idiom throughout. The very first bars of the opening prelude are arresting, with rich chords reminiscent of Arrau’s famously sonorous way with this piece, and recalling a description of Debussy’s playing of it with reference to his “soft, deep chords which evoked full, rich, many-shaded sonorities”. “Many-shaded’ is a good term for Jumppanen’s manner in almost all of these preludes. He has many nuances of colour at his command and quite a range of dynamic too, with many gradations between his loudest and quietest passages. He can roar as well as he can whisper, and certainly conjures up a pianistic windstorm in Le vent dans la plaine (The wind in the plain) and even more so in the terrifying Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the west wind saw).

There is also a consistent preference for broad tempos. The composer made piano rolls of five of the preludes in Book 1, and he was quite a bit swifter than Jumppanen, as the following shows:

Debussy Piano Roll Timings [vs. Paavali Jumppanen’s in square brackets]
No. 1. Danseuses de Delphes 3:04 [3:48]
No. 3. Le vent dans la plaine 2:00 [2:13]
No. 10. La cathédrale engloutie 5:01 [7:17]
No. 11. La danse de Puck 2:10 [2:49]
No. 12. Minstrels 1:45 [2:29]

In terms of proportion these are quite substantial differences, so there is also a subtle difference in feeling. Jumppanen almost mines the music for the last drop of meaning that it can yield, and of course there are depths to be plumbed in these endlessly suggestive miniatures. He is not alone in this approach, for Krystian Zimerman’s award-winning 1994 DGG set took a similar stance with regard to tempo and interpretation, as have several others. The music can certainly take different tempi – Alfed Cortot’s recording of La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral) is over in 4:30 while Zimerman stretches it to 7:27, yet both are persuasive. Debussy’s own recordings though, seem to imply that meanings can be implied rather than affirmed.

But Jumppanen’s account of the first book is, on its own terms, a very fine achievement, and his Book 2 is no less impressive. In Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) he shows subtle control of the pianissimi markings, and of its “caressingly” instruction. The CD booklet even has one of Arthur Rackham’s drawings of fairies, acknowledging Debussy’s inspiration for this piece.

The great seventh prelude of Book 2, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences), is music as mysterious as its title, and Jumppanen responds to its ambiguities again by taking his time to explore them, needing 5:21 for a piece which Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (another supreme exponent of these pieces) plays in only 3:58. A coruscating account of the last and most virtuosic of the set Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) has all the brilliance of rockets bursting against the night sky.

After the intensity and mystery of the preludes, the suite Children’s Corner is a delightful relaxation. These six pieces evoking adult recollections of childhood, and the set is dedicated to Debussy’s daughter Chouchou. Jumppanen is charmingly delicate in The Snow is Dancing and clearly enjoys the jazzy high jinks of Golliwogg’s cake walk. It makes a very enjoyable close to a superb pair of discs.

Ondine’s recorded sound is excellent, enabling us to hear the artist’s fine gradations of tone and balance, and there are very good notes on the music by the pianist himself. The competition in the complete Préludes is large and formidable, not least from the giants already mentioned (Arrau, Michelangeli, Zimerman), but also the three Frenchmen Thibaudet, Bavouzet, and Aimard. There are so many others worthy of mention, but for an approach to tempo closer to that of the composer, we can turn to the excellent Hiroko Sasaki on Piano Classics. She uses a sweet-sounding Pleyel instrument made in 1873. It does not thunder like a modern Steinway, but there are ample compensations. Jumppanen’s disc therefore competes in a very strong league, but is probably somewhere in its first division.

Roy Westbrook



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