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Hyperion Records

CDA67920 - Debussy: Images & Préludes II
Man leaning on a parapet by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2014
DISCID: 07108A12
Total duration: 70 minutes 35 seconds

'There will always be a special place for playing of Marc-André Hamelin’s quality and insight … The discretion of his pedal work and dynamic control creates layered vistas of perspective, with the notes themselves nuanced precisely to the graphic character of the music at any given moment. The effect is akin to standing in front of a painting and allowing eyes and brain to synch and study every detail, while still nailing the whole picture … With beautifully wrought sound that captures just the right amount of ambient space around a Steinway that must have been prepared by a master technician, seize the day or night with Hamelin at the earliest opportunity. He offers much to learn from as well as to wonder at' (International Record Review) » More

Images & Préludes II
Mouvement  [3'27]
Poissons d'or  [4'04]
Bruyères: Calme  [2'46]

A new album from Marc-André Hamelin is always cause for celebration. Here in his first Debussy recording for Hyperion he presents the two books of Images: Debussy’s colouristic masterpiece, a bewitching compendium of ‘scents, colours and sounds’. Also recorded here is the second book of Préludes, in a poetic and evocative performance.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The six pieces contained in the two books of Debussy’s Images, as their name indicates, were the product of Debussy the art-lover (one might say Debussy the ‘see-er’). They perhaps derive ultimately from his early reading of Baudelaire, who declared that ‘the whole visible universe is nothing but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a kind of pasture for the imagination to digest and transform’. The poet also gave voice to this thought in his famous poem ‘Correspondances’ in the collection Les fleurs du mal, initially banned by the censor in 1857 and for that reason, among others, required reading for the artistic young of the following decades: ‘Scents, colours and sounds reflect one another’ (‘Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’).

The six Images were in Debussy’s mind in some form as early as December 1901, when he played versions of two of them (Reflets dans l’eau and Mouvement) to the pianist Ricardo Viñes, but the complete list of titles was not fixed until July 1903, when he sent these to the publisher Fromont. He had just completed the Estampes, and the Images, the first book of which was published in October 1905, can be heard as a development along the same colouristic lines, following earlier intimations in various pieces by Chabrier and in Ravel’s Jeux d’eau. The technique has been called one of illusion—what you see on the printed page is often not at all what you get, depending largely on your use of the sustaining pedal—but equally Debussy shared the concerns of such ‘colourful’ composers as Berlioz and Liszt that overtly descriptive music should also work in purely structural terms.

The small wave forms of Reflets dans l’eau and its key of D flat major might suggest it was a spin-off from La mer, except that the above chronology points, if anything, to the relationship being reversed. Debussy jokingly referred to the piece as being written ‘according to the most recent discoveries in harmonic chemistry’. While this is perhaps a trifle exaggerated, what is disturbing is the way the dreamlike opening, a standard eight-bar phrase, is immediately interrupted by chromatic chords: throughout the piece, the reflections in the water go on being unsettled by pebbles thrown from an unseen hand. The essential circularity of this piece is echoed in the final Mouvement, which is almost an early Étude (‘Pour les triolets’?). Marked to be played ‘with a fantastical but precise lightness’, it achieves an extraordinary rapprochement between academic note-spinning and imaginative atmosphere, with a few fanfares added for good measure. The central Hommage à Rameau, while outwardly placid and monumental, partakes of more traditional rhetorical structures and of the effortless internal dynamism that is so much a part of the genius of Rameau, ‘without any of that pretence towards German profundity, or to the need of emphasizing things with blows of the fist’, as Debussy put it when reviewing a performance of the first two acts of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux in 1903—which possibly inspired his piece, although searches for direct quotations from the earlier composer have so far proved fruitless.

Heavy pounding is even further banished in the second book of Images, published in October 1907. In Cloches à travers les feuilles, apart from two forte chords in the middle, the dynamics are set at piano and below. Within these narrow confines, Debussy explores the idea of bells sounding through leaves, or at least through some substance that flickers and undulates. Although the title of this piece was, as noted above, already fixed in 1903, it is at least possible, given his rivalry with Ravel, that in composing the piece Debussy took note of the younger composer’s La vallée des cloches, published in early 1906, even if only in the determination to write something as different as possible. The demands on the pianist, in the balancing of lines, are extreme: again, the piece could almost be an Étude—‘Pour les lignes superposées’? The second panel of the triptych, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, leads on from Pagodes in the Estampes in its exploitation, not so much of Oriental sounds like the gamelan, though these are certainly present, as of an Oriental stillness and stasis. The first chord belongs, in the Western tradition, as part of a sixteenth-century cadence, achieved through part-writing: Debussy gives it a quite new feeling by treating it as a non-cadential chord with no sense of part-writing whatever, just as a sound in itself. Like the ruined temple, it has survived, but in a new world and with a new function. Finally, Poissons d’or charts the imagined swoops and twitches of two large carp as featured on a Japanese plaque in black lacquer, touched up with mother-of-pearl and gold, that hung on the wall of Debussy’s study. Here indeed we do find him enjoying ‘the most recent discoveries in harmonic chemistry’, and taking the static ‘well motif’ from Pelléas and investing it with piscine acrobatics.

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. 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.

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 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—in Book I 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 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 (from Book I) 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 (Book I), 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 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 (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’ (rather than Dickens’s ‘General Chairman-Member’). 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 penultimate 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 © 2014

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