Colour is fundamental to Debussy’s music. One reason why, rightly or wrongly, the epithet ‘Impressionist’ sticks like glue is the light-infused hues of his harmony. This is especially pertinent in the two books of Préludes for piano, where Debussy placed the titles at the end of each piece. Rather than defining what the piece is about, Debussy is offering a suggestion of what the play of harmonic brush-strokes might represent. That said, while the disembodied swirls of ‘Voiles’ or ‘Brouillards’ fit this ambiguity, other Préludes, such as ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C’ are more clearly defined portraits in music.
Debussy’s use of pianistic colour is absolutely central to this tremendous set from Alexei Lubimov. He uses the characterful sonorities of two pianos from close to Debussy’s time – a 1925 Bechstein for Book 1 and a 1913 Steinway for Book 2. As Lubimov explains in a typically intelligent booklet note, he is not claiming historical fidelity, but simply exploring the timbres of the early 20th-century piano.
And what an exploration it is, for the instruments allied to Lubimov’s individuality bring the pieces alive in ways that are by turns mesmerising, thrilling, beguiling and playful. It takes ‘Danseuses des Delphes’ to get the measure of both Lubimov and his instrument. Rather than modern plastics, these pianos have the grain of mahogany, each register having a different character, myriad tints from the timbral undulations not found in more uniform modern instruments. It’s almost possible to smell the balmy Indian night-time in ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ while the ancient granite foundations of ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ resound through the bass textures.
As an additional enticement, Lubimov is joined by Alexei Zuev in delicious performances of two rarely heard orchestral transcriptions, which are substantial and important works in their own right. The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is more sharply etched than in its orchestral guise, yet still arouses a languorous sensuality. Ravel’s version of the Trois Nocturnes confirms that his genius for orchestration worked in both directions, especially when the performance is as sublime as this.
Lubimov’s imaginative responses to Debussy, captured wonderfully by ECM, are endlessly fascinating. There are a few exceptional recordings of the Préludes in which the enjoyment in exploring Debussy’s pianistic palette remains undimmed on each listening. Lubimov’s set joins that select company.