'A good recording of the Debussy Préludes should feel like an occasion, and Steven Osborne delivers. His playing seeps with atmosphere and he delves deep into the composer’s sound world. There is throughout the sense of going on a journey, even awe, to Osborne’s interpretations. Beautifully recorded, this is total-immersion Debussy' (Gramophone)
'This CD confirms what has been increasingly apparent from Osborne's recitals: he is one of the outstanding keyboard talents of our time. Osborne plays with a maturity that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries bringing to the two books of préludes a quality of touch, texture and colour that lets the music's scene and story-telling speak for itself without blurring. From the very first note you feel he has Debussy's entire sound-world in his grasp' (The Financial Times)
'The finesse that Steven Osborne infallibly brings to his playing pays winning dividends on this recording of the two books of Debussy's Préludes' (Daily Telegraph)
'Steven Osborne's accounts of both books of Debussy's Préludes are as cultivated and refined as one might expect from this hugely talented young pianist. The shifting layers of Voiles, the introspection of Feuilles Mortes, the terraces of sound in La Cathédrale Engloutie and Canopes are full of carefully observed detail, so that every harmonic nuance is perfectly rendered' (The Guardian)
'His playing has the same luminous precision as the Seurat painting Beach at Bas Butin on the booklet cover. Just as the painter [turns his] Divisionist dots into shimmering pictures, so Osborne uses Debussy's immaculately etched notes to do the same. It offers the rare pleasure that can be given only by someone who knows exactly what he is doing' (International Record Review)
Osborne's Debussy has much to commend it. He is a sensitive tone-colourist and .. one immediately senses that one is in the presence of a poet...this playing is alive with personality and zest...Osborne has the measure of this music' (International Piano)
'It's clear that this beautifully engineered release has few serious catalog rivals and easily ranks first among modern versions that fit both books of Debussy's Preludes onto a single disc. A triumph!' (ClassicsToday.com)
'The only word one can use to secure pinpoint accuracy in any assessment of Steven Osborne's wonderful new recording of Debussy's two books of Préludes for piano is magisterial. It is freshly-minted and mind-opening, not least in the most intelligent and lucid performances of Les collines d'Anacapri I have ever heard' (The Glasgow Herald)
'One of the most memorable discs of the year...Osborne has the full measure of the music in this gloriously played and beautifully recorded disc. His readings of the 24 pieces exude authority and empathy in equal measure, and he finds a wonderful range and depth of tonal colour and texture in the music, delivered with just the right touch and expression. Sensitive and lucid, this is a magnificent achievement to add to the pianist's already substantial reputation' (Inverness Courier)
'Le miracle de la version de Steven Osborne est en quelque sorte d'unir les magiciens du son et les rigoristes. Immédiatement, son interprétation nous plonge dans des mondes sonores quasiment oubliés depuis Zimerman. Il y a parfois des choses que l'on n'arrive tout simplement pas à croire. J'en suis à cinq écoutes et je n'en reviens toujours pas...' (ClassicsTodayFrance.com)
Voiles: Modéré [3'38]
Minstrels: Modéré [2'24]
Brouillards: Modéré [3'14]
Bruyères: Calme [2'42]
Ondine: Scherzando [2'57]
Steven Osborne has already made a name for himself in French music with a disc of Alkan and a profoundly moving performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Here he reaches between those two to tackle one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire—Debussy’s two books of Préludes. These works have been central to Steven’s repertoire for many years and he brings them to the studio after many public performances and much reflection. He has worked from the most up-to-date Urtext edition which clarifies Debussy’s thought in many places, particularly with regard to tempo relationships within La cathédrale engloutie and a missing bar in Les tierces alternées. In a crowded field Osborne need fear no comparisons: the pianism is exquisite and the interpretations are of a rare depth and subtlety—a recording to rival the very best!
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To publish twenty-four pieces called Préludes inevitably provokes comparisons with Chopin; Debussy, like all right-thinking people, certainly adored Chopin’s music, and in 1915 dedicated his Études to the Polish composer’s memory. But the fact that each of Debussy’s Préludes has a title, albeit inscribed at the end rather than the beginning, brings them perhaps nearer to the genre pieces of Schumann and Grieg, for both of whom Debussy also had a soft spot.
The differences, even so, are plain to see. Debussy follows no overall agenda, as Schumann does for example in Carnaval or Kinderszenen, nor does he wave the nationalist flag as Grieg does—apart from one fleeting reference to the Marseillaise. These Préludes are rather ‘Scenes from my emotional life’: scenes the composer has seen in reality, in pictures and on postcards, or imagined from reading about them in books and newspapers. But as always with Debussy, the personal is subsumed into the general and the ideal: this collection is no Symphonia domestica, and we are spared visions of Debussy’s daughter Chouchou in the bath.
It looks as though he may have been making sketches for some of the pieces in Book I as early as 1907. But dates on the completed autographs of nine of them show that he was working at high speed between early December 1909 and 4 February 1910. The next day he wrote to his publisher that the volume was finished, and it was in print as early as 14 April (those were the days!). Debussy played Nos 1, 2, 10 and 11 at a concert on 5 May and we know that all of them, apart possibly from No 7, were heard in Paris over the next ten months. Dates for Book II are harder to come by, but the volume was published almost exactly three years after the first, on 19 April 1913. Again, Debussy gave a preliminary taster, performing the first three pieces on 5 March (that is, before publication), and certainly all but No 11 were heard by the end of the year.
Book I begins in the world of Ancient Greece which, in the turbulent milieu of pre-war Paris, held connotations of grace and stability. We do not know for certain what inspired Danseuses de Delphes: it could have been a sculpture Debussy saw in the Louvre or, as Christian Goubault has recently suggested, a reproduction he saw of a group of priestesses of Diana, the so-called ‘dancers on the column with acanthus leaves’, in the museum at Delphi. Debussy was not a believer in any religion, but he undoubtedly responded on some level to the ‘sacred’.
Voiles has variously been translated as ‘veils’ or ‘sails’. According to the composer’s widow in 1924, the latter is correct. Here Debussy contrasts two of his favourite ‘non-academic’ scales, in the sense that they did not normally find their way into the French textbooks of the time: two passages of whole-tone harmony enclose six bars of pentatonicism. No semitones anywhere.
The complete line from which the title of the third piece comes is ‘Le vent dans la plaine suspend son haleine’ (‘The wind in the plain holds its breath’), and Debussy depicts this with sudden withdrawals of material, leaving just a murmured background of semiquavers. The three sudden explosions in the middle of the piece are all the more striking. The fourth piece was also inspired by a line of poetry, from Baudelaire’s Harmonie du soir, which Debussy had set as a song in 1889. Here the musical material is infused with the interval of a fourth, first rising, then falling, and a floating atmosphere is engendered by fluctuating bar lengths of 5/4 and 3/4. The sounds and scents finally evaporate to the sound of distant horns.
Of Les collines d’Anacapri Mme Debussy is reported as saying simply ‘souvenir de Rome’. This may then date from Debussy’s time at the Villa Medici in the 1880s, though the island of Capri lies 200 kilometers to the south; he did not see Rome again until 1914. Whatever the source, this piece introduces the ‘vulgar’ element into the Préludes—a series of popular songs building to a triumphant, lumineux conclusion.
With Des pas sur la neige we pass from the real to the imaginary. The stabbing iambic rhythms give the illusion of destroying movement, almost of destroying time. Above them, legato phrases try to gain a foothold, but can never lift the music louder than piano, although one phrase does bid fair to expand (from 2'24), marked expressif et tendre. But when it returns (at 3'09) it is marked comme un tendre et triste regret. This is a scene of physical and spiritual desolation from which Debussy offers no hope of escape, as symbolized by the hollow final chord with a gap of almost four octaves between the hands.
The seventh prelude paints a picture of violence rare in Debussy’s music, with instructions such as strident, angoissé, incisif and furieux. This is no longer Impressionism (if indeed Debussy ever dealt in such a thing) but Expressionism, composed a year before Bartók’s Allegro barbaro and two years before Prokofiev’s Toccata. The title, Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, is taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Garden of Paradise but, as there is no hint of violence in this story, a parallel source might be Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which Debussy had read in a French translation. It would be hard to find a better description of the piece than Shelley’s ‘the tumult of thy mighty harmonies’.
Mme Debussy duly noted that La fille aux cheveux de lin referred to a poem by Leconte de Lisle. But she went on to say that ‘there is something else more definite, more real, far less literary that I can’t commit to paper’. And she ends by saying to her interlocutor: ‘This is just between the two of us.’ A disengaged, invertebrate performance of the piece would therefore seem to be wide of the mark (clearly Steven Osborne agrees)—and in any case we find in the original poem the lines ‘I want to kiss your flaxen hair/And press the purple of your lips’.
The next two preludes show two ways in which Debussy tried to escape the often burdensome realities of early twentieth-century Paris. In La sérénade interrompue he takes us abroad, to Spain, a land not only of guitars but of dual, simultaneous streams of thought. What exactly is the meaning of the two ‘um-chah’ interruptions (at 1'29 and 1'39), borrowed from Debussy’s own orchestral piece Ibéria? Are they jealous? Sneering? Debunking? Or just matter-of-factly uninvolved? We are left to make up our own minds. La cathédrale engloutie on the other hand conjures up the very precise image of the cathedral of Ys drowned by flood waters, as related in Breton legend. An opera on the subject, Le roi d’Ys, by Édouard Lalo, a composer Debussy admired, had been premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in May 1888 and was given a hundred performances there in just over a year. Debussy must have seen it, and no doubt appreciated what Steven Huebner has called ‘Lalo’s pungent harmonic vocabulary and general avoidance of “filler” […] and Lalo’s image as a solitary traveller’. Add to that the chance to depict cathedral bells sounding through water, and it is not hard to see the attraction.
The two final preludes of Book I are more light-hearted. Puck is Shakespeare’s elf, in all likelihood found by Debussy, as Roy Howat has suggested, in an edition of 1908 with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Puck’s aerial acrobatics are first interrupted by and then blended with trumpet and horn calls. The minstrels of the last piece had performed on the promenade in front of the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, where Debussy and his second wife spent part of the summer of 1905. The ‘vulgar’ elements are treated by Debussy in various sophisticated ways, including sudden jumps between keys and (at 0'54) a ‘mocking’ passage based on whole-tone chords. Both of these last two pieces were encored when Debussy premiered them.
The late Mary Antonietti, a pianist and cousin of Gustav Holst who met Debussy when he came to London in 1909, remembered that Book II of the Préludes was greeted in Britain with slight disappointment. That this was general we can to some extent see from the sales figures quoted by Roy Howat: ‘By Debussy’s death in March 1918, Book I had been reprinted five times, making a total of 8,360 copies; Book II had been reprinted twice, making a total of 4,000 copies.’ Even allowing for Book I’s three-year start, the discrepancy is worth noting. But with time, the attractions of Book II have become clearer, and it seems likely that its more advanced harmonies and syntax were the cause of its relatively slow acceptance.
In Brouillards, the fog is depicted by the simultaneous use of white-note and black-note patterns—making grey. As in Des pas sur la neige, melodic fragments break through the murk from time to time, but the piece ends on a complex unresolved dissonance, the only one of the Préludes to do so. The contrast in Feuilles mortes is largely between sensuous chords and tortuous, chromatic lines in octaves. Mme Debussy said her husband wrote the piece ‘after an autumn walk’. Perhaps the trumpet calls (beginning at 1'28) came from a brass band in the distance.
In general Debussy is careful to set consecutive pieces in different keys. In the two places where he breaks this rule—between Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest and La fille aux cheveux de lin (in F sharp major and G flat major), and here between Feuilles mortes and La Puerta del Vino (in C sharp major and D flat major)—the identity of keys only underlines the sharp differences in atmosphere. A dreamy C sharp now becomes a vibrant, brightly lit D flat in Book II’s counterpart to La sérénade interrompue. La Puerta del Vino was inspired by a postcard of the Moorish ‘Gate of Wine’ by the Alhambra in Granada. Once again, Spaniards are heard to be following two streams of thought simultaneously, leading to sudden explosions in the midst of quiet, contemplative passages. The two-note drum pattern, heard from the third bar, stays anchored on a low D flat for almost half the piece until (at 1'39) it suddenly swoops down to a B flat; did Ravel remember this when writing Boléro fifteen years later? Finally the D flat returns and resists increasingly half-hearted attempts to dislodge it.
Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses also had a printed visual source, namely Arthur Rackham’s illustration to Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, published in 1907 and given to Debussy’s daughter Chouchou as a Christmas present in 1912. Rackham’s drawing centres around a spider’s web, and Debussy’s music likewise is seemingly insubstantial but strongly constructed. Amid the fairies’ quicksilver antics they find time in the central section to indulge in a waltz.
Bruyères returns to the style of La fille aux cheveux de lin and may well be the earliest piece of Book II. Mme Debussy describes it as a ‘visual evocation of the simple flowers’ of heather. «General Lavine»—excentric also looks back, to Minstrels, and was similarly inspired by a popular manifestation, the American clown Ed Lavine who appeared at the Marigny Theatre in 1910 and 1912 and was billed as ‘the man who has soldiered all his life’. His act included juggling on a tightrope and, according to some, playing the piano with his toes, an activity possibly mirrored in the low-lying main tune.
With La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune we return to the atmospheric world of the Images. The inspiration here was an article in the newspaper Le temps in December 1912 describing the durbar at which George V was crowned Emperor of India. Words are inadequate for the sheer sensuous beauty of this piece, one of Debussy’s major pianistic miracles. There is magic too, if on a less majestic level, in Ondine. This again may have been inspired by Rackham’s illustrations for De La Motte Fouqué’s Undine which appeared in 1912. But it must also surely be heard as a riposte to Ravel’s ‘Ondine’ from Gaspard de la nuit, published in 1909. Maybe Debussy, who distrusted prolixity and technical brilliance, was saying: ‘I can do just as good a water nymph as you in fewer notes.’
The next two preludes take us abroad for the last time. Debussy rather admired English sangfroid (again, those were the days …), but was not beyond giving it the occasional dig in the ribs, as here in his quotation of ‘God Save the King’. His reading of Dickens would have been in French, and in the process Mr Pickwick’s suffix underwent slight alteration: ‘P.P.M.P.C.’ is said to have stood for ‘Perpetual President-Member Pickwick Club’. Canope, in contrast, is one of Debussy’s ‘timeless’ pieces, inspired by the ‘Canopic’ jar tops of Egyptian funerary urns, two of which stood on Debussy’s mantelpiece.
Book II ends with a final joke and then a return home. As the title of each piece comes at the end (… in brackets and preceded by three dots), Debussy may be teasing us in the twenty-third prelude by asking us to guess the title. ‘Bustling crowds on the Boulevard des Italiens’? ‘The little train’? No; simply Les tierces alternées: ‘alternating thirds’. Which they do without respite. Feux d’artifice brings us back to real life and to Paris. As Robert Schmitz reminds us: ‘There is a well-established custom which prescribes that the last display shot off in a fireworks exhibit (le bouquet) should be the richest, most varied, most powerful one of the evening […] Few are the connoisseurs who do not find a place on one of the many bridges over the Seine River on the evening of 14 July to witness sky and earth joined in this fiery interplay of pyrotechnics and reflections.’ And as snatches of the Marseillaise fade into the distance, Debussy leaves us to ponder happily over all the marvels we have heard, and seen in our mind’s eye.
Roger Nichols © 2006