A release by an artist of Marc-André Hamelin’s proven and consistent quality is always something of an event. His playing on this Debussy disc for Hyperion goes well beyond technical accomplishment, the more so in that he is wholly exceptional in revealing two little-appreciated but none the less essential aspects of this composer’s art – its underlying expressive strengths, frequently submerged by others beneath an all-encompassing wash of sustaining pedal, those strengths being founded upon Debussy’s inherent mastery of counterpoint.
Far too many pianists miss the contrapuntal nature of Debussy’s writing, being merely content to reduce the lines to chords with leading-notes, but Hamelin is one of that rare breed who reveals the labyrinthine counterpoint without submerging it. We hear that at once in Book I of Images – especially in ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, wherein the ‘wash’ of sound is not always that of a gentle lake but activity reflected on the surface of the water, seeing for ourselves the constant ebb and flow of colouration and incident, a chiaroscuro-like glitter of sound. ‘Hommage à Rameau’ reveals the honour to be one of character, rather than pastiche.
Book II of Images carries on what Roger Nicholas so well describes in his booklet note as Debussy’s “illusion – what you see on the printed page is not at all what you get, depending largely on your use of the sustaining pedal”, and we must not forget that Debussy preferred a small upright piano to a large concert grand: not that Hamelin plays other than a modern Steinway, but his colouration (as I have implied) is not that of pen-and-wash. Hamelin’s approach therefore places greater dependence upon his technique – chording, especially, voice-leading and consistency in finger-pressure, for examples – and, of course, with a virtuoso who ‘has everything. The result is pianism of exceptional insight and penetration.
In such obviously ‘impressionistic’ pieces as No.2 (‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’) colouration is essential, but so is the element of moving forwards at the slowest possible pulse: here, Hamelin is truly exceptional. The ‘goldfish’ of the last piece are certainly capable of swifter and more sudden motion, but this music is so much more than a Saint-Saëns-like pretty picture: it looks forwards, to a century of music in which new logic, founded upon tradition, can be utilised – itself based upon a new approach to scale (in terms of tonal, rather than structural matters).
Hamelin in Book II of the Préludes arrives at the overall masterpiece towards which the Images were leading, and delivers a consistent series of readings. This makes them a unique combination of differentiated expression allied to technical studies which demonstrate the worth and validity of the new language towards which Debussy’s music in all its forms had been progressing. Thus, Hamelin’s command of this music is total – but it is not necessarily the only way to perform it. We have had in the last couple of decades several truly outstanding recordings of both Books of Préludes from such as Zimerman, Craig Shepherd, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Michelangeli – each different from one another, but all demonstrating the genius of the composer, to which roster of outstanding achievement must now be added that by Marc-André Hamelin.