The American pianist Ivan Ilić (who seems to be of Serbian origin) enters a very competitive arena in terms of Debussy’s piano music and not least the two Books of Préludes – whether it be Gieseking, Zimerman, Rogé, Bavouzet, Arrau (particularly in Book I), Planès and Ciccolini, to name just a few very distinguished interpreters of this endlessly fascinating music.
However, Ilić can join the best exponents of these evocative and sound-conscious pieces. He plays with admirable poise and clearly relishes both the evocative and expressive powers within each one. He also commands a wide range of colour and dynamics, both essential to painting pictures (not that this was Debussy’s sole concern; the titles of each Prélude are printed after
the music) and Ilić’s pedalling is also noteworthy, sometimes creating a well-judged haze that is then contrasted with altogether ‘cleaner’ playing – the opening of the very first Prélude (here ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’) is a fine demonstration of this.
Although the listener can of course choose individual Préludes, there is something very satisfying about taking each Book as a whole; it seems that Ilić has conceived his playing of each Book as an entity given that each one follows the next with a minimum of pause and somehow seems related to what has gone before. But, here’s the novelty: he doesn’t play them in the published order! Although such a stratagem may raise an eyebrow, his ordering does convince and the Books are left as compiled if not as published.
There is no shortage of imagination in Ilić’s playing but he doesn’t overdo the imagery or (when it appears) the potential for sentimentality; nor does he force the more dramatic numbers (such as ‘Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest’, here number 9 of Book I rather than number 7) and his articulation (as throughout) is impressive. In short, Ilić plays all 24 pieces first and foremost as musical structures with a benevolent regard for the potential of characterisation. ‘Minstrels’ is maybe too laconic, however, but ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) is most tenderly created. Some listeners may be disappointed with the swifter-than-usual ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ (The Engulfed Cathedral) – here the last Prélude of Book I (rather than number 10) but the climax’s lack of bombast is welcome and refreshing.
The pieces that make up Book II are maybe not always as engrossing – as music – as their counterparts in the first Book. (A personal reaction!) Nevertheless Ilić’s refinement comes into its own in the most elusive creations (although in this re-ordering they can seem too much grouped together) and his shapely phrasing of ‘Brouillards’ is beguiling.
It might have been an idea to play the Préludes in chronological order (if known), which would have meant finishing (according to the booklet note) with ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’; Ilić in fact closes with ‘Feux d’artifice’ (as published), which is here appropriately brittle and pregnant before collapsing to ghostly uncertainty. It’s a shame that Debussy’s very last piano miniature, Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, could not have been included (as it is on Bavouzet’s Chandos recording of the Préludes).
If there is one reservation then it is over the recording quality, which places the piano slightly too distantly in what seems quite a reverberant acoustic (presumably the venue is named after Alfred Cortot – a good omen!). But the ear adjusts and one has the feeling that the sounds and dynamics created are very much those of the pianist.
In such a crowded market as far as different versions of Debussy’s Préludes, it would be difficult to set one pianist off against another. What I can report is that Ivan Ilić brings individuality to his task that makes for persuasive listening; this is a release that I am pleased to have and to recommend.