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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes – Book 1 (1907-10) [43:13]
Estampes (1903) [15:05]
Javier Perianes (piano)
rec. 2018, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902301 [58:26]

I was fortunate enough to get to review Alexander Melnikov’s awesome traversal of Book 2 of Debussy’s Préludes in the course of which I signposted this late addition to Harmonia Mundi’s estimable centenary series. While I gently encouraged the label to let Melnikov loose on Book 1 with his 1895 Érard at some point, this account by Javier Perianes on a modern Steinway is quietly stunning. It features some of the finest pianissimo playing I have encountered on disc. Any implied disappointment in my previous review that the Russian would not be at the helm is utterly redundant. It is self-evident that Perianes has this music in his blood; it is also clear that Debussy’s colours can also ravish when played on a piano of recent provenance.

In Stephen Walsh’s admirable new biography ‘Debussy – A Painter in Sound’ (Faber 2018) he quotes Louisa Shirley Liebich, an English admirer of the composer describing Debussy’s playing of the opening Prélude Danseuses de Delphes as “….like hearing a poet reciting some of his own, delicate lyrics. He had a soft, deep touch which evoked full, rich, many-sided sonorities…..” These words could certainly be applied to Perianes’ approach to the whole sequence; one feels sure that Liebich (and for that matter Debussy himself) would have been deeply impressed. With the exception of certain sections of Les collines d’Anacapri, Ce qu’a vu la Vent d’Ouest and La Cathédrale engloutie the dynamic spirit (if not the letter) of Book 1 is piano or softer, and Perianes’ great skill here encompasses deft, gentle yet crisp projection of the Préludes’ rapid passages, while the slower music never relies on superfluous rubato – there is no sag whatsoever, just tastefully shaded, purposeful playing. So Danseuses de Delphes combines reticent grace with momentum, while Perianes’ lightness of touch and clear dissemination of Debussy’s inner voices really come into their own in Voiles. The Spaniard’s delivery of the sextuplets in Le vent dans la plaine are remarkable given the softness of the dynamic, those sudden fp gusts all the more vivid and blustery as a result. He turns in a performance of Des pas sur la neige of glacial stillness and concentration which is deeply melancholy; at the opposite extreme is the muggy backdrop for the precise yet spontaneous false-starts and misfirings of La sérénade interrompue. Of course the most expansive of all 24 of Debussy’s Préludes is La Cathédrale engloutie; in Perianes’ hands there is a stately mystery here, the bells of Ys resound with yearning, ghostly sadness, its implicit drama tactfully understated. Nor is Perianes’ artistry diluted in the two concluding, lighter confections, which can sometimes strike one as Debussyian afterthoughts - contractual obligations, perhaps. Perianes invests both La Danse de Puck and the music-hall allusions of Minstrels with style and wit, and makes free with the more frequent dynamic contrasts that pepper the latter piece. As Walsh suggests at length in his biography, it seems doubtful that Debussy intended these twelve pieces to be performed in recital as a sequential cycle, yet Perianes’ natural empathy with them enables him to make a convincing case for the set as constituting a coherent and unified whole. It is a profoundly satisfying, intensely musical conception of Book 1 which beautifully compliments Melnikov’s account of Book 2 and to my ears equals Steven Osborne’s poised, thoughtful yet technically brilliant Hyperion recording of both books (CDA 67530).

And there’s more than a pendant here in the form of Debussy’s 1903 triptych Estampes, whose title (which translates as ‘Prints’) reflects the composer’s interest in the refined world of Japanese engravings. While Stephen Walsh reiterates the lack of evidence of clear-cut influence, Debussians past and present remain intrigued by the apparent parallels between two of Ravel’s early pieces, Jeux d’eau (1901) and the two-piano Habanera (1895) with the first two numbers of Estampes, Pagodes and La soirée dans Grenade. To my ears these two pieces most clearly of all epitomise the essential and stylistic overlaps between Debussy and his younger contemporary. Either way Perianes invests the pentatonicisms of Pagodes with an airy serenity and playing of almost improvisatory spontaneity, while La soirée dans Grenade emerges as perfumed, songful, and “characteristically Spanish in every detail” to use the words of the pianist’s compatriot Manuel de Falla. The third piece Jardins dans la pluie was apparently inspired by a wet afternoon at Debussy’s home in Auteuil and incorporates two childrens’ songs: Nous n’irons plus au bois and Do, l’enfant do. Perianes projects its every detail with pinpoint accuracy in an account characterised by taste and subtlety (one can certainly sense the unsettled weather) rather than empty virtuosity.

The ten new issues that constitute Harmonia Mundi’s Debussy Centenary Edition include four piano discs. I have heard three of these, and while I personally found the recital by Nikolai Lugansky to be a bit of a mixed bag (read Robert Beattie’s enthusiastic review here) the very different approaches taken by Melnikov and Perianes to recording the two books of Préludes complement each other splendidly. Each disc offers an abundance of insights and much wonderful pianism. Both were recorded at Berlin’s state-of-the-art Teldex Studio and inevitably boast superb sound.

Richard Hanlon



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