Earlier this month ECM New Series released a two-CD collection of the music of Claude Debussy performed on piano. The collection is entitled Préludes because the major share of the content consists of the two books of preludes that Debussy composed late in his life, the first book in 1909 and 1910 and the second in 1912 and 1913. These are all performed by the Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov. On the remaining tracks Lubimov performs with his student and fellow Russian Alexei Zuev in two-piano arrangements of two of Debussy’s best known orchestral compositions: Debussy’s own arrangement of his “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”) and Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of the three orchestral nocturnes. The two pianos used for the recording may both be called “historical,” a 1913 Steinway and a 1925 Bechstein.
This selection of “period” instruments was Lubimov’s idea. The result is what may be called a “tamer” approach to dynamic range; but this has the fortuitous consequence of guiding the ear more to the subtleties of Debussy’s compositional technique, rather than to any sonorous bombast that one might encounter on more modern instruments. This is particularly important when it comes to how one listens to the preludes.
In the accompanying booklet Jürg Stenzel (translated into English by J. Bradford Robinson) makes a point of the retrospective association of these preludes with the set of 24 composed by Frédéric Chopin, which, in turn, may be associated with the two sets of 24 preludes in the two volumes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. While this connection cannot be denied, I fear it can also be exaggerated. As I have observed recently (and often), there is a good chance that most of the Bach preludes were composed with pedagogical intentions, recognized explicitly in his four Clavier-Übung volumes for “keyboard practice.” (The most likely exception to this basic rule would be the organ preludes, which may have served for both procession and recession during church services.) Chopin, on the other hand, was probably more interested in the cultivation and display of virtuosity (and, most likely, we are talking about his own virtuosity, rather than that of any students).
It is unlikely that Debussy shared either of these motives with his predecessors. Even the number of them (24) does not involve a systematic traversal of the 24 chromatic keys, major and minor. Indeed, key center seems to be the least of Debussy’s priorities. More important is that each prelude has been assigned a descriptive title. Thus, if there is any precedent at all, it would be the “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” which was intended to serve as an “overture” to a reading of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “L’après-midi d’un faune” poem.
Each of Debussy’s preludes is an exercise, whose purpose is to demonstrate that the literary text type of description may be adopted for purposes of music expression. (Think of the keyboard music of Jean-Philippe Rameau as Debussy’s most likely precedent.) One can listen to these relatively short pieces “in the abstract,” attending to Debussy’s keen sense of formal structure and his forward-looking approaches to melody and harmony within those structural boundaries. Indeed, there are probably no end of music theory essays that do just that. However, if one disregards each of the prelude titles and does not try to grasp what that title means, then the logic behind each prelude will evade the serious listener. Such a listener may thus be at at a disadvantage with this recording, for which the titles are listed only in the original French. Fortunately, it is easy enough to consult the Wikipedia page for the preludes to find a good set of translations.
I say “fortunately” because Lubimov has clearly chosen to prioritize this logical significance of the prelude titles in his interpretations. One may not always agree with how Debussy has chosen to describe his subject matter, but one cannot deny the role of description in his compositional processes. This brings me back to the question of selection of instruments. (Lubimov uses both instruments for the preludes, the Bechstein for the first book and the Steinway for the second.) Modern pianos tend to play up not only that bombast but also the prioritization of virtuosity. By performing on these earlier instruments, Lubimov is better equipped to orient the ear towards what are probably the objectives Debussy had in mind.
This is also evident in the two-piano version of the “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” While the original scoring is modest enough to fit in a salon in which the poem might then be read, the two-piano version is even more conducive to that setting. The difference is that in the former case one is drawn to the transparency of the instrumental lines while, in the latter, one is more aware of the interplay of those lines and the exotic harmonies that emerge. It is also worth noting that, if one is to take the booklet photograph of the two pianists at their respective instruments as representative, the recording process has not tried to differentiate those instruments. Their differences in sonority are likely to be too subtle to register with all but the most seasoned ear, leaving one to believe that the two-piano decision in favor of four hands on a single keyboard was simply a matter of making sure that hands would not interfere with each other.
The Ravel arrangement, on the other hand, is interesting for somewhat different reasons, one of which is that, in addition to preparing this piano arrangement of Debussy’s orchestral music, Ravel also orchestrated at least two of Debussy’s piano works, the “Sarabande” movement from his Pour le piano suite and the 1890 “Tarantelle styrienne,” later published in 1903 simply as “Danse.” In this case the orchestral nocturnes are particularly memorable for their sonorous qualities; so, as a result, Ravel’s exercise shifts the attention of the listener to the underlying musical logic. One might almost call it a document of Ravel’s own experience of listening to the orchestral music, accounting for his own sensemaking processes by describing them through keyboard resources, resources over which he had a masterful command.
The overall result is an abundance of highly stimulating listening experiences, facilitated by the usual high technical standards of ECM recording processes engaged in a Belgian church that clearly has an abundance of acoustic virtues. One cannot say with certainty that this is the way Debussy wanted us to listen to his music. However, I have tried to demonstrate that there are some very good warrants for this claim; and I suspect that many of those who take the time to listen to these performances will agree.