DEBUSSY Préludes – Zimerman
Two discs, retailing at a high mid price and playing for a total of 84 minutes? The playing and the recording had better be in the luxury class. Fortunately they are.
Zimerman is the very model of a modern virtuoso. His overrriding aim is vivid projection of character. His quasi-orchestral range of dynamic and attack, based on close attention to textual detail (there are countless felicities in his observation of phrase-markings) and maximum clarity of articulation, is the means to that end. As a result, he draws out the many connections in this music with the romantic tradition, especially in pianistic tours de force such as ''Les collines d'Anacapri'', ''Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest'' and ''Feux d'artifice'', which are treated to a dazzling Lisztian elan the equal of any Debussy playing I have ever heard. The instrument he has selected is itself something of a star, though Jos van Immerseel's 1897 Erard should also be heard as a valuable antidote to its colossal power; and DG's recording combines opulence with razor-sharp clarity (it also catches just a little too much damper-brushing to be ideal).
At times Zimerman's intensity can seem overbearing. The opening Prelude, ''Danseuses de Delphes'', is very much a Brahmsian confessional here, for instance, while ''La danse de Puck'' threatens to be more aggressive than mischievous (but what an engaging dance-like quality it gains from the second page on). I would question whether the organ-like climax of ''La cathedrale engloutie'' (track 10 from 2'45'') is really sans durete (''without hardness''); and in the same piece I'm not sure Zimerman has taken on board the fact that Debussy's rhythmic notation misrepresents his wishes (as the Durand Complete Edition for the first time points out). His ''Brouillard'' (Fog) has some piercing icicles in it, and his sheer virtuosity in some of the more declamatory Preludes borders on the rapacious.
''Why do you play like that?'', Heifetz (I think) was once asked. ''Because I can....'' Yet there is almost always a poetic justification too for what some may feel to be Zimerman's excess of technique. In ''Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest'', for instance, he has noted the furieux marking (track 7 from 2'30''), and the sweep of the playing leaves you in no doubt as to the irresistible power of Nature. At the other extreme Zimerman displays an exquisite refinement of touch that makes the quieter pieces both evocative and touching (sample the lovely yearning quality at the end of ''Des pas sur la neige'', for instance).
Overall, then, I had to put on one side my craving for a little less intensity, a little less pianistic incident, a little more inwardness of mood. And for 90 per cent of the time Zimerman's sheer force of personality and consummate pianism persuaded me to do just that. Whether I would be persuaded to pay around twice as much as for his single-disc rivals I'm not so sure. But such sensitively conceived and wonderfully executed Debussy playing stands, at the very least, on a level with a classic recording such as Gieseking's, or a comparably idiomatic modern one such as Martino Tirimo's.'