Préludes Books I and II
Pascal Rogé (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Although they have long been a staple of the piano’s modern repertoire, and each book is programmed fairly regularly, to have both books of Debussy’s Préludes in one recital is a rare event, and the large audience for this performance suggested a widespread anticipation. Having recently recorded both Books complete for the first time, Pascal Rogé has been immersed in this music such that he can convey the diversity within and between each Book from a well-defined interpretative standpoint.
And contrasted in concept and expression these books are – marking relative stages in Debussy’s piano-writing away from the overt Impressionism of the Images towards the concrete abstraction of the Études, being more wide-ranging in manner than the one without the teasing elusiveness of the other. Certainly the sum of Book I can seem less impressive than its finest parts, but Rogé went a long way to endowing unity on its individual movements – finding remote grace in ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ that continued in the tonal vagueness of ‘Voiles’. He brought a capricious touch to ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ and a simmering sensuousness to ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’, before allowing the energy of ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’ to surge forth. ‘Des pas sur la neige’ was properly frozen in tenor, to which the angular feel of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ came in barbed response. By contrast, ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ was played simply and without affectation, with the Spanish elements of ‘La sérénade interrompue’ drawn from within the music rather than imposed from without. Others have made ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ more monumental, but Rogé’s fastidious control over texture and dynamics made for a powerful culmination with an in-built cohesion. The throwaway nature of the last Préludes of this first Book can be too much of a good thing – but, in bringing out the skittish nature of ‘La danse du Puck’ against the stylised ragtime of ‘Minstrels’, Rogé at least ensured viable contrast.
That the sections of Book II are a more distinct continuity places corresponding emphasis on the pianist’s ability to point contrasts within the whole. Rogé started in ideal fashion with a ‘Brouillards’ neither restless nor becalmed – and only the heat of the moment can have led him to omit ‘Feuilles mortes’ in its entirety and head straight into ‘La puerta del vino’, its pervasive habañera ominous and menacing by turns. The lightly-woven timbres of ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ had a liquid dexterity, such as led naturally into the wistful emotion of ‘Bruyères’ – itself in sharp contrast to the quixotic harmonic lurches of ‘General Lavine – excentric’. Rogé’s emotional discretion in ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ rendered its evocation of opulence decidedly (and rightly) equivocal, with the aquatic musing of ‘Ondine’ sensitively nuanced. The affectionate parody that is ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq.’ never for a moment became heavy-handed, while the limpid plaintiveness of ‘Canope’ was exquisitely rendered. If the third-saturated content of ‘Les tierces alternées’ is most prophetic of the piano music to come, Rogé’s sense of the poetic within the precise kept it well within context: finally, the cascading sonorities of ‘Feux d’artifice’ subsided to reveal a French-ness whose gentle affirmation was soon to vanish within the defiant gestures of the music from Debussy’s last years.
Throughout both Books, there was no doubting the thoughtfulness and involvement that Rogé brought to this music; his characterisation often less sharply-etched than many pianists past and present have favoured, but lacking nothing in technical finish or expressive insight. Above all, his approach ensured there was inevitability to each Book that vindicated the decision to juxtapose them within the same programme. And, as Rogé is recording Debussy’s entire piano corpus, one can only hope the South Bank’s International Piano Series will provide him with a live platform for at least some of the future instalments.