Outstanding discs of Debussy’s piano music abound but there will always be a special place for playing of Marc-André Hamelin’s quality and insight. The two sets of Images from 1905 and 1907 are landmarks in Debussy’s keyboard output, quintessential in their realization of specific musical pictures via contemplation of light, texture and harmony. Technically, they established the template for the composer’s stylistic development to move forward to the more concise and epigrammatic two books of Préludes in 1910 and 1912, as well as the crystalline and linear sound-world of his later orchestral music, notably Jeux.
The great Debussyan Zoltán Kocsis has written that both ‘Mouvement’ and ‘Poissons d’or’ from Images sound as if one were listening to an extraordinarily high-quality piano reduction of an orchestral work. The composer’s textural expansion across the extremes of the keyboard requires the most sophisticated pedalling to support the logistics of two hands covering intricate and frequently swift interchanges of range. No surprise that both later sets of Images and Préludes are laid out on three staves rather than two and that, with a characteristic streak of sadism, Debussy’s music is unhelpfully bereft of pedal indications within the welter of all his other expressive directions.
Needless to say, Hamelin rises to the challenge. 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. No impressionistic haze, but no laser dissection either, just the most perceptive and personal clarification of each piece’s innovative grammar and colour spectrum.
Inevitably, the personal aspect may prove a sticking point for some listeners. There are as many ways to view this music as there are for a painting. Hamelin’s artistry always encompasses vision as well as technique, and although in ‘La Puerta del Vino’, a Prélude in which a seductive and hypnotic dance underpins wild drunken outbursts, my preference would have been for a tauter and more tangible habanera to contrast with what’s going on in the room upstairs, others may disagree.
That said, in the meantime keep the tried, tested and equally miraculous Cortot, Gieseking, Michelangeli and Zimerman in respectful abeyance. Elsewhere, Hamelin’s half-lit evocation of the water imagery in ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ that opens the first book of Images is comprehensively fluid and energized, the final bars teasing when the last drops will ripple the surface. He lays his cards on the table with the most impeccable credentials and maintains them with enthralling spontaneity and individuality.
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.