Claude Debussy
Images, Études, Préludes

Media Review / Listening Diary 2012-11-16


2012-11-16 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-08-06 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-08 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-09 — Expanded, brushed up for better readability


Outline


Claude Debussy: Piano Music in my CD Collection

The CDs

Images, Etudes — Aimard

Debussy: Images, Etudes - Aimard, CD cover

Debussy: Images, Etudes

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Warner Classics 8573 83940-2 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2001

Debussy: Images, Etudes - Aimard, UPC-A barcode
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Préludes — Aimard

Debussy: Préludes I & II - Aimard, CD cover

Debussy: Préludes, Livre I & II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

DG 477 9982 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2012

Debussy: Préludes I & II - Aimard, UPC-A barcode
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Préludes — Gulda

Debussy: Préludes I & II - Gulda, CD cover

Debussy: Préludes, Livre I & II

Friedrich Gulda

MPS 476 5674 (CD, stereo); ℗ 1969 / © 2007

Debussy: Préludes I & II - Gulda, EAN-13 barcode
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I realized that Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was absent from my CD library, and I ran into ads promoting Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recent recordings. So, I decided to give these a try. I won’t be building a big library with music by Debussy, but I did add Friedrich Gulda’s recording of the Préludes that I still have on LPs in the basement.

My Comments on the Recordings

I can’t really rate Pierre-Laurent Aimard‘s recording of the Études and the Images, as I have no direct comparison for these compositions — but I can say that (for me) the interpretations on this CD are technically flawless, fluent, clear, the recording technique / quality is excellent — and I like the music!

Études (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

The Études, L.136 (considered extremely difficult to play) consist of two series of six Études each (durations are for Aimard’s recording):

  1. Livre I / Book 1:
    1. Étude_1 pour les cinq doigts d’après Monsieur Czerny (five fingers, “after Monsieur Czerny“) [3’11”]
    2. Étude_2 pour les tierces (thirds) [4’32”]
    3. Étude_3 pour les quartes (fourths) [5’13”]
    4. Étude_4 pour les sixtes (sixths) [4’38”]
    5. Étude_5 pour les octaves [2’25”]
    6. Étude_6 pour les huit doigts (eight fingers) [1’33”]
  2. Livre II / Book 2:
    1. Étude_7 pour les degrés chromatiques (chromatic degrees) [2’12”]
    2. Étude_8 pour les agréments (ornaments) [4’43”]
    3. Étude_9 pour les notes répétées (repeated notes) [3’17”]
    4. Étude_10 pour les sonorités opposées (opposing sonorities) [5’37”]
    5. Étude_11 pour les arpèges composés (composite arpeggios) [4’43”]
    6. Étude_12 pour les accords (chords) [4’51”]

Images (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

The collection of Images (pictures) consists of two sets of three pieces each (durations are for Aimard’s recording):

Images, 1ère série, L.110 (1905)

Images, 2ième série, L.111 (1907)

  • Cloches à travers les feuilles [4’26”]
  • Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut [5’04”]
  • Poissons d’or [4’12”]

Préludes (Friedrich Gulda, Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

Also the Préludes consist of two series, this time 12 pieces each:

Préludes, Livre 1, L.117

  1. Danseuses de Delphes: Lent et grave
  2. Voiles: Modéré
  3. Le Vent dans la plaine: Animé
  4. “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir”: Modéré
  5. Les Collines d’Anacapri: Très modéré
  6. Des pas sur la neige: Triste et lent
  7. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest: Animé et tumultueux
  8. La Fille aux cheveux de lin: Très calme et doucement expressif
  9. La Sérénade interrompue: Modérément animé
  10. La Cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme
  11. La Danse de Puck: Capricieux et léger
  12. Minstrels: Modéré

Préludes, Livre 2, L.123

  1. Brouillards: Modéré, extrêmement égal et léger
  2. Feuilles mortes: Lent et mélancolique
  3. La puerta del vino: Mouvement de habanera avec de brusques oppositions d’extrême violence et de passionnée douceur
  4. “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses”: Rapide et léger
  5. Bruyères: Calme – Doucement expressif
  6. “General Lavine” – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d’un cake-walk
  7. La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune: Lent
  8. Ondine: Scherzando
  9. Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq., P.P.M.P.C.: Grave
  10. Canope: Très calme et doucement triste
  11. Les Tierces alternées: Modérément animé
  12. Feux d’artifice: Modérément animé

Why these Recordings?

Back in the days when I was collecting LPs, my favorite pianist was Friedrich Gulda. I primarily liked his Beethoven and Mozart, but also had his recording of both books of Bach’s “Das Wohltemperierte Clavier”. When I ran into his recording of Claude Debussy‘s Préludes, I found that interesting and bought the box (2 LPs), even though I could hardly imagine how Gulda’s penchant for Jazz could possibly mold with impressionist French piano music (though — something I did not know back then — considering that Gulda was Martha Argerich’s teacher after she came to Europe, it should come as no surprise that his repertoire also covered French music!).

I don’t think I listened to these pieces many times from LP, but when Pierre-Laurent Aimard now released his recording of the same pieces, I took this as an opportunity to reacquire Gulda’s recording on CD, along with Aimard’s (see above), so I would have two recordings to compare.

Comparing Gulda with Aimard

However, comparing these two recordings turned out to be more of a challenge than anticipated — not just because I’m not a Debussy specialist, or because I don’t play the piano myself and don’t have the piano score at hand: the complication is that these CDs sound so different that it is hard to judge the relative qualities! Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays very well, technically flawless, smooth, effortless (it seems) — and the sound is clear, transparent, just what one expects: I like this recording! Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays a Steinway.
The liner notes for Friedrich Gulda‘s recording don’t specify what piano was played — in any case, a piano could hardly sound more different from the one on this recording! There are likely several components to this:

  • the recording is now 43 years old;
  • the microphone placement must have been such that the bass got over-enhanced;
  • Gulda did not care about distortions when hitting bass notes with a “jazzy” touch;
  • the piano may have been one with stronger bass volume / focus than a Steinway — a Bösendorfer? From some Beethoven recordings (Badura-Skoda, Backhaus) I feel that these have a stronger, fuller bass sound — though here the bass dominance appears to be caused more by the microphone placement, which might explain why some of the distortions are audible so well;
  • or maybe the piano mechanics were in questionable shape? Some of the bass distortions sound like the piano mechanics (hammer heads) need an overhaul.
  • Gulda’s pedaling may have contributed as well (hitting bass strings with the pedal down) — it’s hard to tell. It could also be that the microphone was so close to the strings that it was overloaded by the volume, or
  • the sound engineer (or Gulda?) wanted the bass sound to dominate?

Conclusions

The overall effect is a recording that is often dominated by the bass sound (even though the above sounds rather critical, I still like listening to this recording!), and Gulda’s playing sounds much more “immersive” that Aimard’s, which sounds more “objective” (this also applies to the listener’s perspective) — though I would definitely not call Aimard’s interpretation heartless, lacking emotion, or cold. Both are virtuosic, yet neither of the two artists tries to excel with sheer / pure virtuosity (even though some of the pieces are pretty demanding).
On average, Gulda plays 10% faster than Aimard (Gulda 36:57 / 35:43; Aimard 39:52 / 39:42), but I would not call one interpretation “fast” or the other one “slow”; I think both are good, valid interpretations, even though because of the sound (/ age?), Gulda’s can hardly be called a reference recording. Overall, I like both these recordings!


Addendum (2012-11-16)

After re-listening to the Préludes I felt the need for some additional comments:

  • Some of the bass distortions are due to the way in which these pieces are written: also in Aimard‘s interpretation there are bass distortions, though they are somewhat less conspicuous; in Gulda‘s interpretation, they are not present everywhere, but evident in some pieces, such as vol.I/1 (Danseuses de Delphes), No.7 (Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest), and No.10 (La Cathédrale engloutie).
  • There are a couple of pieces where Gulda‘s interpretation (for me) is (substantially) better than Aimard’s, namely no.5 (Les Collines d’Anacapri), vol.I/10 (La Cathédrale engloutie — what a wonderful piece that is!), and vol.I/12 (Minstrels), as well as vol.II/3 (La puerta del vino: Mouvement de habanera avec de brusques oppositions d’extrême violence et de passion née douceur). Gulda is much better at evoking the “mediterranean spirit” of vol.I/5 and vol.II/3 — especially in the latter piece, his Habanera rhythm is (comparatively) spectacular (with that typical swinging, intra-bar tension!) — compared to Aimard, where it is rather static, not really dance-like. In the last piece in vol.II (Feux d’artifice) both interpretations are good — but Gulda‘s still is somewhat better / more convincing, in my opinion.
  • Overall, I find Gulda‘s interpretation more colorful, better at evoking the atmosphere in these pieces, appears more emotional overall; Gulda also appears to use a larger dynamic range (but this can also be the sound management, of course).
  • Aimard‘s interpretation feels a bit more distant / neutral — both from the interpretation, as from the sound management.

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