Debussy: Préludes II
En blanc et noir
With Daniele Pollini
Deutsche Grammophon, 2018
2018 is the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death and the large number of celebratory albums released in the last few months is all there to commemorate the event. From Daniel Baremboim to Stephen Hough, many internationally acclaimed performers have released their own tribute to Debussy and now it is Maurizio Pollini’s turn to make his own.
Pollini’s latest Debussy album is not only a tribute to the French composer, however. It is part of a collection of recordings which already includes the first book of the Préludes and L’isle joyeuse. The Préludes I received a mixed reception as they were praised for the precision and skill of their performer, but also criticized for his excessively restrained playing. With the two works of the present collection – the second book of the Préludes and En blanc et noir, performed with Daniele Pollini – we are facing the same problem.
The Préludes II
Genesis of the Work
Debussy’s composed the second book of Préludes between 1910 and 1912 and published it in 1913. They are some of the most innovative among his latest works as they, together with the second series of the Images, include some of his farthest tonal outreaches. It is in these pieces that Debussy discarded the whole-tone scale in favour of the octatonic scale, following the model of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Ravel.
Maurizio Pollini’s Préludes
The reason why Maurizio Pollini’s performance of the Préludes is not as riveting as it could have been is more or less the same that spoils many ofthe recordings he made in the last years. It seems that the Italian pianist has begun to have a predilection for a scrupulous and considered rendition of the works he performs with considerable loss of élan and energy. This is something I noticed also in my review of Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 2, even though there the effect of the live performance lessened the impression.
In the present case, we have a studio recording where the distension and quiet of the environment is tangible in the final outcome, even though Pollini plays with extreme skill and insight. Some of the colours he finds are as mesmerizing as usual. The sound of the piano, in particular, is so liquid that the effect is really fabulous, as it happens – just to give an example – at the beginning of Bruyères and especially in Ondine, where the association with water is really simple to do thanks to the silvery cascades of notes and chords.
There are also Préludes where inspiration happens to be boundless, as in Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses, which is ethereal and light as you expect from a fairy dance, and others, as the Feux d’artifice, where the playing is brisk and sparkling.
All these positive features, however, are subordinated to that self-control, that inevitable concern that (unconsciously or not) stresses accuracy and even more the pleasure it gives rather than the abandon to music. In this way, the performance is fine, even excellent sometimes, but in the same way it could be the reading of a classic by a scholar and not by a poet.
En blanc et noir
The title of En blanc et noir refers to the colours (black and white) of the piano keys. Debussy wrote En blanc et noir after a short period of “silence” and completed it in less than two months (June-July 1915). In his intentions «these pieces need to draw their colour, their emotion, purely from the piano, like the ‘greys’ of Velázquez».
In the present recording, Maurizio Pollini performs En blanc et noir together with his son Daniele. From a general point of view, what compromised the Préludes reappears in En blanc et noir too, but with a significant difference. I had the impression that these three pieces have their strong point in the balanced search for expressive playing. In this way, each of the three pieces, dedicated to as many people (the composer’s friend Koussevitzky, lieutenant Jacques Charlot and Igor Stravinsky), is clearly and unmistakably characterized.
Pollini’s recording of Préludes II and En blanc et noir suffers for an undesirable “moderation”, but in its best moments it offers a fine and, sometimes, even surprising performance of Debussy’s work. Moreover, if you like a performance which favours precision and order rather than energy and free inspiration, this recording will not displease you at all. After all, Maurizio Pollini is one of the best pianists of our time and, apart from that excessive control, he is able to create the most shimmering colours and the finest nuances.