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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Preludes Books 1 & 2
Woori Kim Smith (piano)
rec. 2021, Concert Hall, Liberty University School of Music, New York
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview Available as download only or check

I have spent a lot of time wondering about the sound of this recording. My first thoughts were that it was rather dry, but in the bigger pieces, such as La Cathédrale Engloutie, it doesn’t lack for resonance. There is definitely a slight hardness to it, which has an effect on the experience of listening to these performances. This led me to wonder how much the effect of this album is down to the sound and how much to the performer. The result, on this recording, is a Debussy of sharply etched lines, not of impressionistic washes of colour. Looking over the available recordings of these much-recorded pieces, my personal preference is for sharp lines as exemplified by Krystian Zimerman’s celebrated recording. Risking heresy, I can also state that I have never really enjoyed Walter Gieseking’s legendary version, even as I can admire his artistry.

A good place to start in assessing this new recording is the mighty seascape of Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. The recording, which is also very close, gives Kim Smith absolutely nowhere to hide. It is unfair to compare a modern performance, with all the many possibilities available for retakes and patching, with one made in the 1950s but it has to be said that, in the same piece, Gieseking covers a multitude of sins with very generous pedalling and a big echoey acoustic. Arrau, in a recording I adore, risks a drier approach and even his famous technique, albeit toward the end of his career, nearly comes unstuck under close scrutiny. Kim Smith’s technique is absolutely rock solid and I loved it from the sotto voce opening (does she use the soft pedal here?) to the blazing defiance of its conclusion.

Alexander Melnikov’s recent revelatory recording of Book 2 on a period piano (Harmonia Mundi - review - review) showed that, contrary to impressionist expectations, Debussy’s piano was rather dry in tone; a lot like the tone on this recording in fact. Kim Smith doesn’t have the benefit Melnikov had of numerous “Ahah!” moments when it suddenly became clear the kind of sound Debussy had in mind, but her clarity does often have the effect of cleaning a familiar painting made murky by years of smoke and dirt. This doesn’t apply just to pieces where such an approach seems an obviously good idea such as the Tierce alternées, though Kim Smith’s wry wit makes me hope she gets to tackle the Debussy Études at some point. Her version of Des pas sur la neige is made even more exquisite by its cut glass precision and resistance of Monet style haze.

There are moments when the somewhat forensic recording reveals too much of the mechanism of the music that even Kim Smith’s fleet fingers can’t overcome. Both Le Danse de Puck and Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses remain stubbornly earthbound for all the pianist’s best efforts.

Kim Smith’s approach matches the directness of the recorded sound. She is business-like and doesn’t impose any particular big interpretative ideas on the music. Sometimes this can feel a little brusque but mostly there are more pluses than minuses. Did I wish for more playfulness from her Minstrels? Yes, but I did like the way her Minstrels were more Toulouse Lautrec than Degas. The spirit of Satie was hovering pleasingly close to this performance.

Measuring this recording against what I think are the very best – Arrau (Philips 4323042, download only) and Zimerman (DG 4357732 - review) – I find that those two pianists are able to find greater nuance and colour and ultimately magic, even as they clarify textures. By comparison, Kim Smith’s Feuilles Mortes seem a little too blunt. Whilst I think Arrau is untouchable in the effortless flair of his Puerto del Vino, I relished the tangy percussive sound Kim Smith draws from the piano in this piece. Likewise, Zimerman may sound even more like a guitar in the Sérénade interrompue but the flat hard sound Kim Smith produces, almost like a prepared piano, made the piece, which can often sound dull and ordinary, really fizz.

I recall vividly the experience of hearing Zimerman’s version of Les Collines d’Anacapri and whilst Kim Smith’s version doesn’t have that sense of completely reimagining something well known, it does have some of Zimerman’s zest and playfulness. All things considered, this is a fine set, well worth hearing for its novel insights even if it doesn’t displace my top recommendations. I certainly look forward to hearing more from Woori Kim Smith.

David McDade

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