Lubimov’s Debussy Préludes, Plus

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

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.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Préludes: Osborne (Hyperion)

    Préludes Books 1 & 2; Trois Nocturnes (transcribed for two pianos by Maurice Ravel); Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (transcribed for two pianos by the composer)
  • ECM - 2241/42
  • CD

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