Debussy’s Preludes by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on DG

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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A Master Interprets Debussy’s ‘Preludes’

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Claude Debussy, “Preludes” Books 1 & II
Deutsche Grammophon
CD 477 9983

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s concert of Claude Debussy’s “Préludes” (Book II) at the Perelman Theater late last fall. It was an electrifying performance, and the only disappointment was that Aimard didn’t play Book I, opting instead for Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes.” This was completely understandable, because of the intensity of the “Préludes.” Lucky for us, Aimard’s new Deutsche Grammophon recording comprises all of the piano “Préludes.” Absent seeing him play live, Aimard’s studio performance is, in fact, just as spellbinding.

From the opening descending notes in Book I of the “Danseuses de Delphes” (Delphi dancers) escorting us to a rarified realm, Debussy chooses dance theme variations, though not always in the literal sense. There is the radiant narrative of “La danse de Puck” (Puck’s dance) and “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” (The fairies are exquisite Dancers) with its arch, faux-sinister progressions.

It is so easy to get hypnotized by Aimard’s technical artistry, but it is all about the artistic alchemy for this artist, whether it is the serene intimacy on “Les collines d’Anacapri” (The hills of Anacapri or immediate cathartic drama of “Des pas sur la neige” (Footsteps in the snow).

So many visual evocations and tonal moods — from disquieted abstractions that unspool with “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (What the west wind has seen) brought to diamond clarity by Aimard, or the haunted whimsy of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair); the visceral intensity of “La sérénade interrompue” (Interrupted serenade); or the contemplative tonal imaging of “La cathédrale engloutie” (The submerged cathedral).

As the pianist did so brilliantly in concert, the recording captures the translucent pulse of Debussy that builds through Book II’s ethereal “Brouillards” (Mists), the cathartic fin of “Feuilles mortes” (Dead leaves), and the eternal esprit of “La puerta del vino” (The gateway of the Alhambra Palace)— just to mention a few.

In the CD’s liner notes, Roy Howat writes of the circumstances of Debussy’s “Préludes” as that of Debussy trying to beat out Gabriel Fauré to cash in on Chopin’s centenary celebration in 1910. Crass commercialism aside, the “Préludes” are Debussy at his most distilled and poetic; these transporting musical scenes are fully realized through Aimard’s sterling interpretive skill.

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