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After Casta Diva, her impressive disc of opera transcriptions (Decca 4855290) Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell returns to Debussy, completing the cycle of Préludes that began with
Book 1 on a previous Decca release (Decca 4816552). When they were first heard the public and many critics did not take to the second book of préludes as readily as the first and the English musicologist and Debussy specialist Edward Lockspeiser even went as far as to claim that musically Debussy died at the beginning of the [first]war. That situation has changed though La puerta del vino or Feux d'artifice remain more popular than some of there more esoteric companions.
In Brouillards there is plenty of mist though Mosell's crisp articulation is not swamped by her subtle pedalling and she is happy to differentiate individual notes, highlights glimpsed through the veils. In all these works she makes a great deal of the dynamic and rhythmic contrasts; the pianissimo hushed first chord of feuilles mortes opens out very broadly into the fourth bar and at the pianississimo that follows the un peu plus allant there is a wonderful six bar crescendo before the sudden hush at the F-sharp major chord. Other contrasts are fully embraced as well, notably the brusques oppositions d'extrême violence et de passionée douceur – extreme violence and passionate sweetness – that make up La puerta del vino, where it is the crowded scene that this Alhambra gate overlooks with all its noisy bustle and life, its crowds and colour that Mosell depicts here in all its brash earthiness. In Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses she reminds us that not all fairies are delicate ethereal creatures – the banshee, the old Irish bean sí of legend, and her aloof and magical European brethren are more common than any sparkling Disney sprite. There is plenty of delicate figuration but she doesn't shy away from sudden crescendos or sforzandi accents. The landscape of Bruyères is, in this performance, a craggier one than the booklet note description – evoking a charming musical naturalism of shepherds and theirflocks – suggests. It is certainly more passionate than the cooler note-painting of Pierre-Laurent Aimard for instance (Deutsche Grammophon 4779982). Mosell clearly loves the outrageous but suave cake-walk that is General Lavine – eccentric, as strutting as comic as one could desire, and I love her spellbinding approach to the colours of the ambiguous la terrasse des audiences du clair de lune; the frigid iciness of the D-sharp minor chords after the second of the fragile descending arabesques or the balanced chords, reaching to the extremes of the keyboard, in the expansive waltz at the heart of the piece. Her Ondine is almost reserved compared to some of her depictions here but she conveys the playful water sprite and the medium she inhabits beautifully and I find plenty of humour and whimsy in her portrayal of Pickwick starting with his pompously grand entrance. The relative simplicity of Canope with its intimation of the ancients in its modal chords and exotic fourths has a soupçon of rubato in its themes, especially the sad rising and falling figure so clearly articulated by Debussy. Clean fingerwork and subtle pedalling in Les tierces alternées effectively points the way to the études which were to follow close on the heels of these préludes and Feux d'artifice only confirms that suggestion, its fearsome demands met head on in a giant performance.
Listening to L'isle joyeuse immediately after this set one can see how much of the technique and figurations Debussy developed here made their way into the Préludes; there are echoes of Pickwick's fussy dotted rhythms and the arabesques that open and close the piece hint at the effervescence of fireworks or the rippling sweep of Ondine's tail. This is an exhilarating performance that makes full use of the gorgeously recorded sound of Mosell's Steinway D. Before this glorious evocation of uninhibited revelry on some exotic island paradise lies Children's Corner, the gift to Debussy's 5 year old daughter, his beloved Chouchou, who he was to lose just a year before his own death. In recognition of Chouchou's English governess the titles are all in English and from the first piece (studies first, playtime later) we find all the character and vitality that she brings to the Préludes. Mosell finds the perfect touch in Dr Gradus ad Parnassum - clean but certainly not dry; sans sécheresse as Debussy asks. I find myself attracted to the more buoyant melody and less pedalled texture of Thibaudet in Jimbo's lullaby (Decca 4602472 review) where Mosell opts more clearly for a steady lullaby but there is lots of swagger in the middle section and in the creeping staccatos throughout – Jimbo evidently as unwilling to go to sleep as any five-year old. She really grabs attention with the strumming of the guitar in serenade for the doll, the swirling flurries in the snow is dancing and the delicate, reflective music of the little shepherd. Her golliwog is a breezy character and there is oodles of Mediterranean fervour in the seductive quasi-Wagner middle section.
This is a fabulous recital, gorgeously recorded and as I've said, full of character, suavity and oozing with bright contrasts. Wonderful.