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Debussy: Preludes Books 1 & 2 / Alexei Lubimov

Release Date: 07/10/2012 
Label:  Ecm   Catalog #: 001695802  
Composer:  Claude Debussy
Performer:  Alexei LubimovAlexei Zuev
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Back Order: Usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

DEBUSSY Preludes: Books 1, 2; 1 Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; 1,2 Nocturnes 1,2 1 Alexei Lubimov, 2 Alexei Zuev (pn) ECM B0016958-02 (2 CDs: 112:11)

The impetus for this new recording of works by Debussy came, interestingly and Read more appropriately enough for this composer, through the search for an instrument that would provide the correct sonority—that special timbre Alexei Lubimov felt was not only most suitable for Debussy’s music, but that was necessary to truly understand the kind of pianist and therefore composer Debussy turned out to be. His search led him to two instruments: a 1913 Steinway Lubimov found in the Polish embassy in Brussels, purported to be Paderewski’s recital piano, and a 1925 Bechstein. The pianist describes the former as “divinely soft in pianissimo , resonant and marvelously suitable for unexpected colors”; the latter is described as being “clear, sharp-etched, translucent, and light, even in complex textures.” The Steinway is used in the second book of preludes, while the Bechstein is used in the first; the two come together when Lubimov’s student Alexei Zuev—an immensely talented player himself—joins him to perform the transcriptions for two pianos.

The first impression that I got from listening to Lubimov as a Debussy pianist (my previous experiences of his pianism come mostly in Russian music) is that there is a sense of darkness, a wash of sound that comes over the music and mellows out the sometimes bright palette that many other pianists bring to this music. Is this a trait of the instruments or of Lubimov in general? That is difficult to answer. But it works in specific pieces very well indeed: The second prelude of Book 1 ( Voiles ) where the small note ornamentations really do feel as though they are cloaking something mysterious that lies just beyond our perception or even the sixth prelude from the same book ( Des Pas sur la neige ) where one feels as though the snow upon which Lubimov treads is far different than the snow that I have; there is something almost eerie about his reading here. Another important skill for a good Debussy pianist is the ability to weigh not only different lines of music, but different textures and different sonorities as well. In fact, most of the preludes require this, and Lubimov is sometimes very successful, other times less so. The very first prelude ( Danseuses de Delphes ) is of the former type. The small inner voice at the beginning of the piece is weighed just perfectly with the more sostenuto, more translucent chords that surround it. One can truly feel the difference here between pp and ppp . One of the more disappointing numbers is La Cathédrale engloutie, not for his lack of sophistication, perhaps more so because of a lack of an overall sonority that surrounds the listener, one in which the listener can almost bathe. For this type of effect, just compare this recording with Ivan Moravec’s masterly one. Lubimov is nothing if not up to the job of the faster preludes, though. His fingerwork in Les Tierces alternées is mindboggling; never has this prelude sounded easier than in his hands. Ondine is seductive on one hand and ferocious on the other. A performance like this makes me rethink how to interpret Ravel’s character piece of the same name, written just a few years before Debussy’s.

The two-piano works are both interesting, and though these artists bring much color to this music, they remain—at least for me—orchestral works. Of the two, I believe that Debussy’s own transcription of his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune works better than Ravel’s of the Nocturnes . Perhaps the piece is more straightforward; perhaps it is easier to follow. They are both brilliant transcriptions in their own right—both Ravel and Debussy knew how to get the most out of the instrument, giving both pianists a challenging part, a share of the important material, and numerous moments of interplay between the two. If one were looking for performances of this repertoire in this medium, I could recommend none better than Lubimov and Zuev.

ECM continues to astonish with its presence of sound—never too immediate and never too distant, rather always the perfect balance between the two; this is, certainly, one of the keys to this recital’s success. Zuev is a very fine partner, and though he may be a second pianist here, his noteworthy performances prove that he is not second best. In the end, though, Lubimov deserves most of the credit. His performances sparkle, bringing new life to these much-played pieces. He proves that no matter how great the composer, no matter how many recordings and performances one may have heard of these pieces, there is always something else to hear in them. That is truly the mark of a great artist.

FANFARE: Scott Noriega

For his recording of Debussy’s two books of Préludes, Alexei Lubimov uses two vintage concert grand pianos whose distinct sonorities would have been familiar to the composer. Lubimov plays Book 1 on a 1925 Bechstein and Book 2 on a 1913 Steinway. The Bechstein’s pronounced registral differentiation and soft metallic timbre makes up in color and nuance what it lacks in dynamic impact, while the Steinway’s relatively even and rounder textures are closer to modern-day models. However, the instruments are not so important in themselves as how they are played.

For the most part Lubimov’s clear, direct, and intelligent interpretations persuade. In the opening Danseuses de Delphes, the processional chords unfold with subtle changes in voicing and timing, while similar variety in touch prevents Voiles whole-tone harmonies from becoming static (although Philippe Cassard’s Bechstein traversal is a shade more languorous and sexy). Also note the absolutely uniform evenness of Le vent dans la plaine’s rapid ostinatos, and the clarity of the left-hand bass-register rumbles and intense climactic build-ups in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. Lubimov’s use of rubato works better for the flexible lyricism of La fille aux cheveux de lin than a relatively stiff, unlilting La danse de Puck.

Book 2 also boasts memorable moments, such as the unpressured pace that liberates inner melodies from the feathery fingerwork, in contrast to Steven Osborne’s far faster, more ethereal presentation. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’s multi-leveled dynamic strata compensate for a more headlong approach than I usually prefer in this piece (think of the ravishingly expansive live 1966 Horowitz version). By contrast, Lubimov’s clipped and brisk treatment of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.’s opening proves a welcome change from ponderous, bass-heavy versions that overemphasize the composer’s quote from “God Save the King”.

Alexei Zuev joins Lubimov for two-piano versions of the Trois Nocturnes and the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Both pianists work miracles of balance and synchronicity that recall the Kontarsky brothers’ standard-setting DG recordings. Although evenly matched instruments are the norm for two-piano teams, the timbral differences between Bechstein and Steinway benefit passages where both instruments occupy the same register (the opening of Sirènes, the Prélude’s polyrhthmic moments). Some listeners might prefer a closer, slightly less diffuse recording quality, but the ambient space manages to give an idea of Debussy’s “piano without hammers” philosophy without aural fatigue.

-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

Préludes, Book 1 by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Alexei Lubimov (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1909-1910; France 
Préludes, Book 2 by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Alexei Lubimov (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; France 
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Alexei Lubimov (Piano), Alexei Zuev (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1892-1894; France 
Notes: Transcription for Piano Duet, 1895.  
Nocturnes (3) for Orchestra by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Alexei Lubimov (Piano), Alexei Zuev (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1897-1899; France 
Notes: Transcription for Piano Duet by Maurice Ravel. 

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