Préludes, Book I (1909-1910)
Préludes, Book II (1912-1913)
Piano: Ralph Votapek
Producer: Michael Rolland Davis
Engineer: Ed Thompson
Total Time: 75:33
Recorded at WFMT Studios in Chicago May 18-19, 2003
Editor: Jennifer Traczynski
Piano: Steinway & Sons, New York
Liner Notes: Christopher Weiss
Recorded at WFMT Studios in Chicago May 18-19,2003 Total Time: 75:33 24 bit (DDD)
This Ivory Classics release of Claude Debussy's Preludes, Books I and II with American pianist Ralph Votapek is clearly one of the most significant new keyboard recordings I've heard in the past year. I've never experienced more convincing performances of these 1909-1913 pieces with which Debussy took the piano literature to a height of evocative power that has never been surpassed. More to the point, as Christopher Weiss observes in the course of his excellent annotation, Debussy "not only infused each work with the harmonic language and compositional techniques of the period, but he also made the listener an important partner in the sharing of his most intimate thoughts and feelings." Collectively, these 24 preludes virtually define what we mean by Impressionism.
Debussy's titles, which he appended after each piece in order to stress the importance of the listener's interpretation, are highly evocative without being "descriptive" in the usual sense: Dying Leaves, Sounds And Perfumes Swirl In The Evening Air, What the West Wind Saw, Mists, The Interrupted Serenade, Dance of Puck, Minstrels, Ondine (water nymph), Terrace for Moonlit audiences, Heather (on the moors), Fireworks. Sometimes, as in The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Debussy uses a simple pentatonic scale, in this case harmonized with diatonic chords to remove some of its oriental associations and give it the simple presence of a folk song, of a young maiden softly singing of her daydreams. At other times, he can be more elaborate, as in Dancers of Delphi, its quasi-orchestral effects created by layered textures, with detached chords occurring above, below, and surrounding the melody.
The composer is at his best whenever the title alludes to water or weather conditions. In Footsteps in the Snow, you can hear in the ostinato measures the slow, heavy footsteps of a wayfarer in a snowbound landscape, with a pattern of descending bass notes and the final chord sounding from opposite ends of the keyboard, creating a real feeling of desolation. Debussy pulls out all his repertoire in The Engulfed Cathedral with modal and pentatonic scales, bell tones and pedal points, as he evokes the image of the sunken cathedral of Breton legend that sank beneath the waves as punishment for the people's impiety, rising in awesomely sonorous beauty each day at sunrise as a reminder to sinful man.
In this remarkable prelude, Votapek does a commendable job sustaining the varied elements representing the lapping of the waves against the giant arches of the rising edifice, the sound of submerged bells becoming more distinct as the cathedral rises, the sustained sounds of plainchant, and the booming pedal point of the organ. Hear also the way in which he keeps the light fantastic "flying theme," the singing tone in the middle section, and the many delicate trills in perfect balance in The Fairies are Exquisite Dancers - a real measure of this keyboard artist's technique at the service of his interpretive skill.
Great music, insightful interpretations, superb recorded sonics, and a well-annotated booklet with rare photographs researched from Debussy's life: this is a quality production all the way.
Atlanta Audio Society, May. 2004