The Canadian pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin has built up a considerable reputation over the years and has made many recordings notably for Hyperion. This disc is, perhaps surprisingly, his first of Debussy although I understand that there is a live DVD of a recital contemporaneous with the recordings here. The first thing to say on listening to this record is how well he conveys the impressionist feel of these works. In a wet February they transport the listener to a warm and sunny France. This effect is aided by a recording that is first rate.
The Images commence with Reflets dans l’eau and it’s wonderful how a piano can convey the rippling water, seemingly so effortlessly. Hommage à Rameau uses a melody from Jean-Claude Rameau’s 1737 Castor and Pollux but makes the music distinctly Debussy. I was particularly taken by the final Image—the amusing Poissons d’or that depicts the movements of two carp which featured on a Japanese plaque in the composer’s possession.
Debussy had been working on the Preludes from 1907. As with the Chopin Preludes there are 24 in all but there the comparisons end. Here each piece has its own title and there is more distinction between them. Critics more expert than I will no doubt be able to pass comment on Hamelin’s execution but I must say that I found these readings marvellous. They would be difficult to criticise. There is expertise and above all the humour as in General Lavine—eccentric and Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. with its dramatic opening of God Save the Queen. Then there is the otherworldly nature of pieces like Canope, inspired by jar tops of Egyptian funeral urns that stood on Debussy’s mantelpiece.
There is considerable competition in these works. We start with the famous recording by Walter Gieseking from 1954. That's available in an inexpensive EMI Icon box set (also on Regis), which despite being mono is one many think of as definitive. There are also fine recordings by Monique Haas and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli which I’m delighted to have in my collection. Add to these distinguished versions by Stephen Osborne (Hyperion), Roger Woodward and Craig Sheppard (Images—Preludes). This record though seems to me of the highest order and one that I will return to with the greatest pleasure.