Debussy: Préludes, Book 1; Préludes, Book 2

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LABELS: Surroundedby Entertainment
WORKS: Préludes, Book 1; Préludes, Book 2
PERFORMER: Joan Rowland (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SBE 1002-2 (distr. Vivante)
To describe the sound-world of Debussy is next to impossible. Especially since musicians, as well as mere critics, differ as to just what that sound-world is. And if you don’t get the sound right, one great Debussyan implied to me recently in conversation, the rest is almost irrelevant. This isn’t to say, of course, that the sound is all you need to get, just that it’s more important in Debussy than in practically any other composer you could name. For my own particular taste, Joan Rowland gets it just about perfectly. Debussy’s famous remark that in his piano music the instrument should sound as though it had no hammers is illuminating, but tempts too many pianists to play his music as though it had no rhythm. The best of these set the notes adrift in a sea of symbiotic overtones and create images comparable to the amorphous beauty of subtropical jellyfish. In Rowland’s hands the music is never amorphous, but nor is it ruthlessly ‘structured’, as though it followed the same rules as Beethoven. She has both mind and heart, but has the wisdom to keep her intellect in check. That said, she does fall occasionally into a kind of metrical angularity where the natural buoyancy of the rhythm too easily runs aground. On the whole, though, this is very impressive playing. If you crossed this with the crystalline vision and phenomenal ‘contrapuntal’ control of Krystian Zimerman, you’d come very close to my ideal for this music. Jeremy Siepmann