Debussy: Préludes, Book 1; L’isle joyeuse

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WORKS: Préludes, Book 1; L’isle joyeuse
PERFORMER: Maurizio Pollini (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 445 187-2
Pollini will go down in history as one of the most objective pianists, scrupulously observant of what the composer wrote. Make no mistake, here is superb piano-playing – controlled and never ugly. But Debussy’s Préludes require something Pollini doesn’t possess – the magic gift of suggesting images, of sounds far beyond the instrument. Except for pedalling, which Debussy thought too subtle to notate, you can hardly argue about every carefully reproduced nuance, but it’s not illuminated by imagination, and though you can hear Pollini grunting and gasping with the physical effort of No. 7 (‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest…’), he doesn’t unleash the terror of an untameable natural force.


To recover a sense of strong poetic suggestion, try the second of the double albums devoted to Alfred Cortot in Philips’s Great Pianists series. Cortot really took the music out of its wrapping and delivered it without any reservation. For vivid imagination and technical perfection combined, however, the benchmark is the late Paul Jacobs, whose matchless recording is reissued on Teldec. This is Debussy playing at its most acute, nerve-ends a-quiver.


Oddly enough, Pollini is much more impressive in L’isle joyeuse, arguably Debussy’s greatest piano piece. The opening trills are beautifully liquid, and he builds the jump-cut structure into a powerfully symphonic composition, with a triumphant sense of momentum at the end. I doubt there’s a better performance on disc. Adrian Jack