CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918): Beau Soir – Préludes Book II (L 123) and Other Works for Piano—Michael Lewin, piano [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 1 – 3 July 2013; Sono Luminus DSL-92175; 1CD + Blu-ray, 68:56; Available from Sono Luminus, Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]
Malgré lui, virtually every listener who has ever seen a vintage Looney Tunes® cartoon or a French art house film has been exposed to the piano music of Claude Debussy. Likewise, few aspiring pianists have emerged from conservatories without having encountered Debussy’s two Livres de Préludes, composed in 1909 – 1910 and 1912 – 1913, respectively. Whilst there is nothing in his correspondence or contemporary commentary to suggest that Debussy intended the Préludes to be performed collectively rather than individually, the precedent for playing the full livres rather than extracting Préludes in recital was set as early as 1911. The piano music of Debussy in general has been in the repertoires of many of the best pianists of the 20th and 21st Centuries, especially those with Gallic sensibilities, and American pianist Michael Lewin brings to this disc—his third recording for Sono Luminus, by whose GRAMMY®-nominated producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores his playing of a Steinway Model D concert grand piano has been recorded with extraordinary clarity and spatial ambience—an impeccable Francophile pedigree, having studied with Yvonne Lefébure (1898 – 1986), who played for Debussy in the last years of his life and was a pupil of Alfred Cortot (and whose own pupils also included Dinu Lipatti and Imogen Cooper). Recordings of the Préludes and Debussy’s piano music by an inordinate array of pianists have revealed that it is one thing to play these pieces but quite another to truly experience them. Michael Lewin experiences this music acutely, and, being granted by Sono Luminus the acoustical perspective of a seat in a Parisian salon musical, the listener to Beau Soir can actively take part in this tantalizing escapade in sound.
The disc’s title track, with which this scintillating recital begins, is an arrangement by Koji Attwood of the young Debussy’s lyrical mélodie ‘Beau Soir,’ a setting of a poem by Paul Bourget. The piece was arranged specially for Mr. Lewin, and his playing of it is exquisite, his elucidations of both melody and harmony transcending conventional instrumental renderings of chansons. L’Isle joyeuse, one of Debussy’s most familiar piano pieces, is played as though it were newly-discovered, Mr. Lewin’s unflappable technique making easy going of the work’s formidable demands. The delicate, deliciously Arcadian Le petit berger—cited by Mr. Lewin as the first Debussy piece he learned as a child—glows with subdued wonder in his performance. Perhaps more familiar in Ravel’s orchestration, Debussy’s original Tarantelle styrienne receives from Mr. Lewin a performance in which power never precludes sly humor. The trio of pieces in waltz rhythms—Étude No. 5 (Pour les octaves), Valse romantique, and La plus que lente—are all played with apparent but inconspicuous attention to absolute rhythmic precision, the accuracy of Mr. Lewin’s playing seeming all the more remarkable for his limning of the melodic lines being utterly natural and unforced. The sublime Élégie, Debussy’s last completed work for the piano but ironically one of his least known, brims with august resignation, perhaps even desolation, and Mr. Lewin quarries to the innermost soul of the piece without engaging in overwrought sentimentality, his approach aptly light but informed by cognizance of the poignancy of the music.
Roughly contemporaneous with his ballet score Jeux and the magnificent Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, the second Livre de Préludes was composed when Debussy was in the final phase of his development as an artist. Formal structures and conventional tonality were fading from his musical vocabulary, but the breadth of his genius ensured that theoretical exercises in modern idioms remained unfailingly musical and often indescribably beautiful. Though the distinct rhythmic profiles of the Préludes suggest a tacit kinship with similar keyboard ‘cycles’ of earlier generations, not least Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier, Debussy bound himself with no restraints in terms of producing pieces in particular keys or progressions. Indeed, even as explorations of the possibilities of pianistic technique the Préludes are less formulaic than Chopin’s works in a similar vein. It would be a misguided generalization to suggest that these twelve Préludes are rhapsodic in the purest sense, but the compositional freedom with which Debussy created them is arresting—and, to the listener’s edification, uniformly apparent throughout Mr. Lewin’s playing of them. Musically, the Préludes are not as restrictively programmatic as their evocative titles imply, but each of them engenders its own unique microcosm. The tonally ambiguous mists of Brouillards; the obtuse, anonymous disintegration of Feuilles mortes; the scorching Andalusian sunlight in La puerta del vino; the ethereal sprites of ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses,’ reminiscent of the fairy denizens of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the lilting Highlands atmosphere of Bruyéres; the zany musical portraiture of General Lavine – eccentric; the quixotic Orientalism of La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (a piece that every pianist should learn as a study in restrained lyric expression); the mysterious world of Ondine, a distant cousin of Dvořák’s Rusalka; the tempest-in-a-teacup antics of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.; the vaguely ironic funerary rites of Canopes; the purely technical exposition of Les tierces alternées, almost a Baroque da capo duet for the pianist’s hands; and the explosive, pseudo-patriotic eruptions of color in Feux d’artifice: all of these qualities abound in Mr. Lewin’s playing of the Préludes. Though the style is unmistakably Debussy’s, hearing the Préludes played in succession by an artist of Mr. Lewin’s caliber has the effect of hearing a great pianist play a recital including music by Scarlatti, Mozart, Brahms, Scriabin, and Satie—a recital in which, contrary to expectations, the pianist proves equally adept at all of the musical styles on offer. Since Debussy did not truly devise an unifying concept for his Préludes, Mr. Lewin provides one with unyielding brilliance of technique and artistic intelligence.
There are in many pianists’ performances of Debussy’s music disconcerting notions of the pieces being academic experiments devised to appraise abstract hypotheses about the functional boundaries of tonality. Even the most oblique of Debussy’s works for the piano are not coldly methodical theorems, however: they are phantoms of terror and tenderness, and Michael Lewin plays the pieces on this disc accordingly. Virtuosity is always enjoyable, but the pianist’s hands that are detached from his heart produce nothing but notes, regardless of whose music is being played. The ingeniously chameleonic piano music of Claude Debussy is the vehicle with which Michael Lewin coaxes an engrossingly individual performance from the impersonal keys of his piano, and Beau Soir is nothing less than an intimate discourse between a great composer and a preeminent interpreter of his music. Eavesdropping for a little more than an hour, the cares of the world melt into aural spectacles that comfort and confound.