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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes Première Livre (1909-10) [39:50]
Préludes Deuxième Livre (1912-13) [37:14]
Pièce pour l'oeuvre du “Vêtement du blessé“ (1915) [1:27]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2018-2020, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00424 [78:42]

Christopher Howell has wisely eschewed providing detailed analytical notes for the two Books of Claude Debussy’s remarkable Préludes. Instead, he gives an interesting strategy for listening to them. This is based on approaching the entire cycle without reference to the “traditional” titles of each Prélude. This tactic is especially recommended to anyone who has not heard this music before. Howell proposes that the listener note the impression made on them during an “innocent ear” hearing. For the titles are not really titles at all: these are not character pieces written to evoke a predefined landscape, character or weather feature. In fact, the composer’s words or short phrase suggest “what the music might have expressed”. In other words, the image was supplied after each Prélude was completed or at least drafted. It is understood that Debussy and his daughter Chouchou discussed each number at the piano and debated the “literary or impressionistic” labels. Alas, once these “after-titles” are known, they colour subsequent hearings. Howell wonders if it might even be possible for those of us who know these Préludes well to clear our minds and ask ourselves “what does the music suggest?” As readers of this review will note, I am unable to do this. Fifty years is a long time to break a habit.

Another important point: Debussy did not insist that both sets of Préludes be played together, or even as a single Book at a time. He considered that they were uneven and of varying quality. We may disagree with the maestro! Most recitalists will play selections or maybe select an entire Book for performance. It is only on disc that they are typically issued complete.

So, each listener will have their own way of approaching this disc. Once a year, I sit down with the piano score and through-listen to each book – with a tea break in-between. I guess other people will pick out their favourites. If they are Classic FM listeners, this may be the ubiquitous The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. Through-listening is fine, but I think one must keep an eye on the titles (notwithstanding Howell’s dictum) and have the odd time out.

On first hearing a new recording of the Préludes, I usually pick one example from each book to get a general impression of the playing. Firstly, I listen to the Sérénade interrompue from Book I and then Les tierces alternées from Book II. Despite what is said above about ignoring the titles, I cannot help picturing an old guitarist in some sequestered square in Spain. He muses on old love affairs, long forgotten dances, and is perhaps roused by a sly comment from a passing schoolboy. It has been suggested that this piece was a “sketch” for Iberia from Images. Does Howell hit the spot? The answer is Yes. It is the changes of mood that do it for me. And it does remind me of a sultry day in Spain, where alas I have not been for two years thanks to Covid.

Howell points out that the only Prélude that has a title with a purely technical description is Les tierces alternées. This is really a study rather than an evocation. Yet even this piece has a charm that offers interest. Perhaps Debussy is looking back to the days of the 17th century clavecinists? If the recitalist can convince me with a magical performance of this Prélude, then I am certain that the others are good beyond doubt. Howell does. He impressed me with the entire cycle. A few examples of what caught my ear will suffice. I do keep the images created by the composer’s titles in mind.

Voiles, with its whole tone and pentatonic scales and cool chords in thirds, perfectly creates images of boats at anchor in the Mediterranean sun. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest ("What the west wind saw") is the most demanding piece in Book I. It gives a vision of a coast battered by storms and the sea’s fury. There are remarkable tremolos, sonorous chords and demanding figurations. La Danse de Puck is summery, witty, sometimes mocking and often capricious – just as it should be. Does the pianist summon up the image of the Cathedral of Ys, the birthplace of Isolde, rising from the sea in La Cathédrale engloutie? He does: the plainsong, the ancient organum, the tolling bells and the swing of the tide all combine here to create a perfectly stated vision of an emerging and then submerging cathedral.

La Puerta del Vino is one of many Spanish masterpieces by a Frenchman. The pianist is required to evoke images of a humid Spanish night, complete with an equally sultry dancer, close to the Alhambra Palace in Granada. This “habanera” requires considerable changes of mood and pace. Subtle adjustments to its dynamics are well played here. Ondine (or Undine) has always been one of my favourite Debussy’s Préludes. The title refers to an elemental being associated with streams and water pools. Over the centuries, she has been transformed into a water nymph. This piece must capture the games and sports and even mischievousness of Ondine. Therefore, a good contrast of pianism is required to capture all the changes and chances of her moods. The last Prélude from Book 2 that struck my ear was Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) which is a complex fusion of impressionism and sheer Lisztian virtuosity. It is full of “glittering arpeggios, trills, [and] explosive chords” which are executed here with perfection. The night sky is truly lit up on Bastille Day. All these, and the other Préludes are played to my satisfaction and enjoyment.

As a bonus, Christopher Howell has included the fugitive “prélude” written as a donation to a charity for the war wounded. Pièce pour l'oeuvre du “Vêtement du blesse” is just under a minute and a half, yet it is a perfect example of the composer’s art. It is lovingly played here.

The ArkivMusic catalogue lists 94 versions of Livre 1 and 79 of Livre II (as of 4 September 2021; there actually are a handful more). So, why another recording? Christopher Howell told me: “Debussy’s Préludes in particular have always been close to me, I was already playing them by the book-full while at university.” He sees it as a stimulating change to move momentarily away from his major projects of British music such as the cycles of Stanford’s and Mackenzie’s works that he is often associated with. He thinks that “it is good to show from time to time that my horizons extend a little further”.

I was impressed by this new recording of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece for piano. The performance met my expectations in every way, the recording is superb and the liner notes are refreshing in their approach. It is a worthy addition to the many recordings of this wonderfully evocative piano music.

John France

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