Debussy: Preludes, Book 1; Preludes, Book 2

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Preludes, Book 1; Preludes, Book 2
PERFORMER: Steven Osborne (piano)
Steven Osborne’s pedigree in French repertoire is such that it has been almost inevitable that he would record Debussy’s Préludes at some point. He has much in his favour, notably a marvellous range of colour, finely judged touch, and the ability to combine powerful waves of sound with diaphanous passagework while Hyperion have not lost their ability to capture a piano in full, natural sound. At the end of ‘Canope’ from Book 2, Osborne conjures a remarkable moment of melancholy stillness, followed by a breathless whizz through ‘Les tièrces alternées’ that makes even Walter Gieseking (EMI) seem tardy. ‘La puerta del Vino’ has a delicious insouciance; ‘Minstrels’ are full of joie de vivre.


And yet, one can not deny that the bar is set so very high. Overall, Osborne does not challenge Krystian Zimerman (DG) or Noriko Ogawa (BIS) among modern versions, and Gieseking remains unsurpassed. Osborne’s desire to keep a firm grip on musical line can lead at times to diminishing other areas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the frankly curious balance at the opening of the first prelude, ‘Danseuse de Delphes’, while some of the decorations to the grand pillars of ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ are thrown away as inconsequential, overlooking their hidden role in the architecture. Rather than the devastation of Gieseking’s hair-raising cyclone, Osborne’s rendition of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest’ is a breezy walk in the park, and his ‘Feux d’artifice’ is a modest box from the local shop set alongside the sparkle, fizz and bangs of Zimerman’s spectacular municipal fireworks. Christopher Dingle