Debussy Préludes – Steven Osborne

0 of 5 stars

Préludes – Books I & II

Steven Osborne (piano)

Recorded 6-8 January 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, London

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: November 2006
Duration: 78 minutes

How to perceive Debussy’s piano music? Is it fundamentally an offshoot of Impressionism or a pianistic vehicle?

If the former, you are looking for idiomatic fidelity, something like the versions by the late lamented Catherine Collard, or the doyen of the French repertoire, Pascal Rogé.

If the latter, you hope that the performance transcends its time; you are likely to prefer, say, the strength of character and arrogant virtuosity of Michelangeli.

An exact parallel can be seen in early Schubert. Michelangeli played the Sonata catalogued as D537 regularly, and was almost dismissive of it, taking it by the scruff of its neck. In her recent Schubert cycle, Uchida is throughout, but certainly in the same work, respectful, meticulously detailed and sympathetic. In some ways, Michelangeli’s approach works better, covering up the compositional flaws.

Steven Osborne chooses a middle way (not unlike the approach of Gordon Fergus-Thompson), and is always thoroughly within the style. French music and French interpreters are by reputation cool and ironic; Osborne never oversteps the bounds of taste; Impressionism, like music from the Classical period and unlike Romanticism, means that effort must be concealed. Osborne certainly makes light of the technical difficulties. Impressionism is also about the abolition of distinctions between surface and depth, and here, too, Osborne’s presents these pieces as accessible and transparent.

Listen to how poised the first two Préludes are, how well rehearsed is ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ and with what detail ‘Voiles’ is drawn. Both ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq’ and ‘General Lavine’ are like exquisite pen-and-ink drawings; Book II finish with the very difficult ‘Les tierces alternées’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’, both played without the least sense of struggle.

Unlike Ravel, who was known for disliking amateurs and who wrote hardly any technically easy music, Debussy occupies a middle ground, eschewing neither innocence nor virtuosity. Osborne’s rendition is similarly comprehensive in its emotional approach, solid, satisfying, neither too French nor too wilful. But what it lacks is a sense of improvisation, of being interpreted ‘on the move’, of the sense in which Impressionism is iconoclastic, different and challenging. Both ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ and ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ come over as crafted set-pieces; not heard with new ears at all. ‘Puck’ and the ‘La sérénade interrompue’ sound as if they are played every night – they are not snapshots of sudden, surprising moments.

The recording is excellent and this release, like others, has the advantage of being on a single disc; in many cases, one has to buy two, with fill-ups, to have both Books. Very recommendable, then, but it won’t make you catch your breath. The sheer excitement Michelangeli generates, or the intensity and depth of the leading ‘modern’ set, that of Krystian Zimerman, are not quite found here.

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