Clair de lune
Debussy, Fauré, Ravel
Menahem Pressler, piano
Deutsche Grammophon, 2018
There is something miraculous and amazing only in the idea to release this recording. Pianist Menahem Pressler recorded this collection of pieces by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel in 2017, when he was ninety-three years old, and yet he is still able to capture the listener’s attention with his dazzling technique and lustrous tone.
Clair de Lune: the Programme
Even though this album has been released in the centennial year of Debussy’s death and can therefore be considered part of the increasing number of tribute recordings as those of Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Hough and Maurizio Pollini, Pressler points out in the booklet notes that his main purpose is to give prominence to the long familiarity he had with French music, from his early years in Germany to the years of his international success. He also notes significant events and mentions people who are associated with the works of this collection for one reason or the other, so that to every work corresponds a stage of his life and career.
As for the pieces, there is a bit of everything. Debussy takes the lion’s share with ten pieces out of thirteen tracks. The compositions are taken from the first book of the Préludes, the Andante con moto from the Deux Arabesques, Rêverie, The Little Shepherd from Children’s Corner, La plus que lente and of course the title track Clair de lune. The Barcarolle no. 6 by Gabriel Fauré, the Pavane pour une infant défunte and the Oiseaux tristes from Miroirs by Maurice Ravel round off the collection.
Clair de Lune: the Performance
An Album of Tranquillity
The first thing that draws the listener’s attention is that there is something thoughtful and considered in the performance of these pieces. This “something” makes you guess that the pianist is not a young man anymore and that the stamina that usually belongs to young artists has no place here. The word which summarizes perfectly this recording is indeed: tranquillity.
I do not mean this as criticism. I am writing about Pressler’s tranquillity in his old age with the same respect and approval I used when I referred to the sensitivity that a young pianist as Beatrice Rana revealed in her debut album even though she was just out of her teens. Pressler’s tranquillity is the wisdom of his age, if you want. Furthermore, that wisdom is precisely what make the distinction between a “quiet” recording and a “boring” one.
The pianist’s relaxation and serenity, in fact, are perfectly compatible with the “narrative texture” of the selected works and never lead to the disastrous impression of predictability, not even in Clair de lune, which lasts more than six minutes (instead of the usual four-five). The colours of his piano are original and the sound of the instrument is so fluid to be stirring, especially in the piani and smorzandi, where it seems to liquefy.
Pressler’s sensitivity is of course part of this process. He reveals his insight in every piece, from the Rêverie with its dreamy atmosphere to the stillness of Clair de lune to the lightness of the Voiles. The sweet feeling that animates Ravel’s Pavane and the extremely balanced inspiration of the Oiseaux tristes are mesmerizing.
Fauré’s lulling Barcarolle and Debussy’s Minstrels deserve a special mention. In the former, the variety of colours is particularly wide and ranges from the most sombre shades to pure silver. The latter, for its part, has drawn my attention because here Pressler really enjoys to play with sounds. The piece is absolutely lively and amusing.
The dynamics and their extensive use are among the best features of this recording. In pieces as La cathédrale engloutie, they give the impression of an alternation between strength and suavity which adds a precious touch to this piece.
This is a magisterial recording. Menahem Pressler is still not only a fine performer, but he is an artist too. He still has something to say when he plays these works – and he is able to express it.