Debussy Piano Works, Vol. 2

Author: 
Christopher Headington

Debussy Piano Works, Vol. 2

  • (24) Préludes
  • (24) Préludes

It looks as if getting both books of Debussy's Preludes on to one CD is going to become the norm—Martin Jones did it for Nimbus (4/90) and a 1950s Gieseking mono recording is also available in this format (EMI). Now here is another version of all 24 of these pieces on a single disc from Martino Tirimo. Which is unfortunate for Philippe Cassard whose 85 minutes will cost you around twice as much as Tirimo's 78, and also fairly hard luck on Gordon Fergus-Thompson and ASV, although his two discs contain other Debussy works and give a decent-value total listening time of 126 minutes.
Tirimo is a fine pianist with a first-rate technical command, and understands Debussy's world well. For my taste, he is a little over-generous with the pedal (to see if you agree, you only need listen to ''Danseuses de Delphes'' and ''Voiles''), but the result is always musical and his soft-textured, rich recording gives a pleasant warmth to the performances as a whole. Some minor criticisms of his playing overall may be exemplified from Book 1: thus, articulation needs to be sharper in ''Le vent dans la plaine'' (though this does not apply to ''Les collines d'Anacapri''), ''Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir'' could float more effortlessly and spaciously, while ''Des pas sur la neige'' asks for a more intense desolation and ''Minstrels'' more sheer impudence.
But I must emphasize that these are small reservations: Tirimo's handling of each piece is firm and persuasive in its own terms and sometimes more than that (in Book 2, for example, the elusive ''Les tierces alternees'' is most stylishly done and ''Feux d'artifice'' has real panache). No one buying this CD should be disappointed unless he already has pretty strong views about how the Preludes should be played—which a critic should be careful not to have (at least when exercising his profession!).
To judge from his playing and his booklet notes discussing the Preludes and explaining his choice of a Bechstein piano (the second note being entitled ''The choice of a piano or the sound of a universe''), Cassard, born in 1962, is a serious young artist, not to say an earnest one. (It's the first time, too, that I have seen it suggested that Debussy's use of more than two staves in Book 2 ''proves he was thinking in terms of an orchestra''.) We are also told, in a paragraph which in this context mistranslates the French word avertissement as ''warning'' (!), that he uses Roy Howat's 1985 Durand-Costallat edition which ''contains several noteworthy and interesting changes to the harmony, accents, tempo and dynamics in use to this day'', but frankly few of them will be noticed even by a listener familiar with the music.
As for the playing itself, as I've already suggested it tends to be solemn and self-conscious. Furthermore, the pianist's control of touch and pedalling, and his use of rubato, do not have the flexibility or refinement of Tirimo or, particularly, Gordon Fergus-Thompson. The recording is too close for such magical music—listen, for example, to ''Les sons et les parfums'', ''Des pas sur la neige'' or ''La cathedrale engloutie'' in Book 1 and ''La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune'' and ''Canope'' in Book 2 to see what I am getting at. Also, at 1'15'' in ''Les collines d'Anacapri'' and 1'21'' in ''Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest'' the forte tone distorts a little. ''La fille aux cheveux de lin'' and its companion piece in Book 2, ''Bruyeres'', are pretty good tests of a Debussy pianist in their unforced simplicity: frankly, Cassard is just ordinary here. And when ''La danse de Puck'' doesn't get airborne, ''La cathedrale engloutie'' lacks mysterious grandeur and ''Minstrels'' seems simply limp (the same goes for ''La Puerta del Vino'', though not for ''General Lavine—excentric''), this issue is an inauspicious first volume of what is announced as a complete Debussy series. It is only right to say, however, that Cassard plays Book 2 of the Preludes more stylishly than Book 1.
Thus, there's no question that of these two versions Tirimo's is the more desirable, and of course it's on a single disc coming as Vol. 2 in another Debussy series of which the first issue received a warm review from my colleague DJF (10/90). But although I enjoy his performance of the Preludes, it is Fergus-Thompson who seems to me to characterize these pieces most fully so that their considerable range is best realized. Compared with Tirimo, he offers a still deeper, more flexible and more sharply focused vision of Debussy's wonderfully personal world. In addition, his recording is most atmospheric with a finer dynamic range than Tirimo's. However, if you want to have all these pieces on just one CD, you will not go wrong in acquiring this new issue—or the wonderful old Gieseking set.'

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