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Hyperion Records

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Beach at Bas Hutin, Honfleur (1886) by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai, Belgium / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67530
Recording details: January 2006
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2006
Total duration: 37 minutes 10 seconds

'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)

'The finesse that Steven Osborne infallibly brings to his playing pays winning dividends on this recording of the two books of Debussy's Préludes' (The Daily Telegraph)

'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)

'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)

'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' (Financial Times)

'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 Herald)

'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)

'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' (The 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)

Préludes II, L131
composer
published on 19 April 1913

Bruyères: Calme  [2'42]

Other recordings available for download
Lívia Rév (piano)
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)   November 2014 Release
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2014


Other albums featuring this work
'Debussy: Images & Préludes II' (CDA67920)
Debussy: Images & Préludes II
Pre-order CD by post £10.50 CDA67920  3 November 2014 Release  
'Hyperion monthly sampler – November 2014' (HYP201411)
Hyperion monthly sampler – November 2014
HYP201411  Download-only monthly sampler 3 November 2014 Release  
'Debussy: Piano Music' (CDS44061/3)
Debussy: Piano Music
MP3 £15.00FLAC £15.00ALAC £15.00Buy by post £41.97 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDS44061/3  3CDs Boxed set (at a special price) — Archive Service  
'Debussy: Preludes Book 2' (CDA66487)
Debussy: Preludes Book 2
MP3 £3.50FLAC £3.50ALAC £3.50Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66487  Archive Service   Download currently discounted
'Stephen Hough's Spanish Album' (CDA67565)
Stephen Hough's Spanish Album
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50ALAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50 CDA67565  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

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