Préludes – Book I
Préludes – Book II
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Recorded 6-8 November 2006 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: CHANDOS
Duration: 80 minutes
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote two books of Préludes for the piano, the first published in 1910, the second in 1913. One of the earliest impressed by these works was Ravel who described them as “admirable masterpieces” and indeed they have remained central to the repertoire.
This first volume of a projected cycle of Debussy’s piano works by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is entirely successful, exquisitely played with complete understanding and sympathy, and very finely recorded. From the opening measures of the first Prélude, ‘Danseuses de Delphes’, the listener is aware that this is going to be a highly satisfying account of the two Books.
Bavouzet’s use of colour is remarkable in its Monet-like timbres, and faithful to Debussy’s writing. There is no chromium-plated glitz for its own sake here; indeed, there is occasionally some old-fashioned separation of hands which itself adds its own palette. The first Prélude, inspired by a sculpture in the Louvre, is marked Lent et grave and is just that; there is no heaviness at the tempo Bavouzet chooses, while the music combines an impression of the solid, cold stone, the giving, warm bodies, and the delicacy of the flowing costumes. ‘Les collines d’Anacapri (No.5), a Mediterranean picture of bright light and sparkling sea has a whiff of popular Italian tunes which, as Roger Nichols relates in his excellent booklet note, rather shocked the young Darius Milhaud with its nod to the vulgar – Milhaud seems to have got over it quite quickly! Bavouzet allows the piece to breathe and he resists the temptation to turn it into a bravura tour de force.
The following Prélude, ‘des pas sur la neige’ (footprints on the snow), paints a desolate abandoned picture, cold and grey, almost too cold for getting to one’s destination. The violence of the wind in ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest’ is powerful, yet controlled. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) is delicate on the surface and erotic underneath. Bavouzet follows the tempos and corrections in the editions from Durand prepared so assiduously by Roy Howat and Claude Helffer. ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (The Engulfed Cathedral) resonates with the colour of bells and water; Bavouzet’s control of pianissimo is marvellous.
Beginning Book II, ‘Brouillards’ is suitably grey in the winter, foggy air, and is very effective at Bavouzet’s tempo. ‘General Lavine – excentric’ takes its inspiration from a music-hall artist, a combination of hobo and warrior, a juggler who also, it is said, played the piano with his toes. ‘Ondine’ flits gossamer-like with wonderful delicacy, while the homage to Mr Pickwick is an altogether meaty affair with its John Bull of an introduction using “God Save the Queen”, followed by bustle and activity. ‘Feux d’artifice’ ends Book II with a 14 July Parisian fireworks display, certainly the visual elements of the explosion of colour, which Bavouzet provides with all the delicacy need.
There’s an encore, Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon’; written in the depths of a harsh winter during the First World War, when Paris’s inhabitants were running very short of coal, Debussy presented this in gratitude to his coal-merchant, quoting fragments of ‘Feux d’artifice’, no doubt the sparks of the fire. In 2001, this piece was rediscovered in a trunk belonging to descendants of that coal-merchant and included by Roy Howat in his edition for Durand and recorded by him on the Tall Poppies label.
This is a splendid disc, an excellent introduction to Debussy’s piano music, and a valuable addition for those who have already collected more than one performance. It will sit happily alongside Izumi Tateno, Gieseking and Tirimo.