DEBUSSY Solo Piano Music; Fantasie for piano and orchestra; RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto in D Major for Left Hand – Zoltán Kocsis, piano/ Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Iván Fischer – Philips

by | May 23, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

DEBUSSY Solo Piano Music; Fantasie for piano and orchestra; RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto in D Major for Left Hand – Zoltán Kocsis, piano/ Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Iván Fischer – Philips (4 CD set) 475 7301, 74:40, 74:53, 74:37, 75:08 ****:

Debussy’s 24 Preludes for Piano set the example of what most music for piano in the 20th Century would be. As towering a collection of keyboard masterpieces as, say, Bach’s WTC, Scarlatti’s Sonatas, or Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, the Preludes moved from the composer’s earlier piano works which had a modal and/or Baroque atmosphere to pieces which conjured up exotic fantasy images or impressions of nature. Debussy’s use of the piano to “orchestrate” a special atmosphere of floating, sensuous sound was way beyond program music in conjuring up an almost visual image in the mind of the listener. His harmony remained tonal but took music into previously uncharted areas.

A combination of accuracy in the complex Debussian note-spinning together with a certain relaxed delivery to maintain the diaphanous sound-fabric is essential to the premiere Debussy interpreter. Precise and rapidly-changing pedaling is key to transmitting just the right amount of musical “blur” to these fluid works.  Most of the earlier recordings, such as those by the acclaimed Walter Gieseking, suffer from the inability of the recording methods of the time to preserve the delicacy of the carefully-blurred notes’ reverberant “tails.”  Paul Jacob’s highly-regarded recording of The Preludes is compromised by a very high hiss level. To my ears SACD reproduction captures this aspect to the highest degree, but this collection of recordings by Kocsis – dated from l984 thru 1998 – preserves successfully the smaller details of Debussy’s breakthrus in extended color and rhythm in piano music.  I didn’t have any of the original Philips CDs in my collection to compare, but I would venture that the enhancements of the last few years in mastering and remastering standard CDs have improved the sonics of these recordings over the original issues.

The first two CDs are devoted to the two books of the Preludes. The third disc contains the Children’s Corner suite, Estampes and the early Pour le piano – which seems to look back at the Rococo period with a jaundiced eye. This CD is filled out with nine short pieces, beginning with the lovely waltz La plus que lente.  Disc No. 4 opens with the last of the solo piano selections, the Suite bergamasque, and concludes the Debussy section of the set with the composer’s early Fantasie – in which he later felt he had created “a slightly ridiculous struggle between these two characters” (the piano and the orchestra).

The two Ravel piano concertos make an excellent pairing with the Debussy piano music.  Here the mists of Debussy’s diaphanous approach frequently give way to a more craftsmanlike precision note-spinning, plus the new element of Ravel’s fascination with early jazz –  heard in both concertos.  Both of these recordings are the most recent – from the late 1990s – and benefit from especially clean and wide-range sonics. This package, which must  be available in the mid-priced area, strikes me as an excellent way to delve deeply into Debussy’s distinctive piano music, in superior sound and a compact package.

 – John Sunier

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