Claude Debussy: Préludes, Books I and II. Ivan Ilic, piano. Paraty 108.105, ©2008, 75:40, available from , $15.00.

By Paul Orgel

There is no evidence that Debussy planned his two books of Préludes as cycles with each prelude meant to be played in its published order, yet the many pianists who have recorded the complete set all do so. Ivan Ilic, an American pianist of Serbian background based in Paris, arranges them differently in his new recording on the Paraty label. His chosen order seems based on alternating faster preludes with slower ones whenever possible to provide maximum contrast. I was intrigued by the idea at first, expecting some interesting new juxtapositions, but ended up missing the usual sequence of pieces and somewhat convinced that it was Debussy’s deliberate intention to set a tone of mystery and restraint when he began Book I with the portentous block chords of “Danseuses de Delphes” (an homage to Satie with its timeless feeling and reference to ancient Greece) and following that with another slow piece, the impressionistic “Voiles”, which lays out his mastery of whole-tone composition. Likewise, Book II, in Debussy’s order, begins with “Brouillards” (slow, hazy, mysterious) followed by the almost static “Feuilles mortes.” Ilic opens Book I with one of Debussy’s sunniest creations, “Les Collines d’Anacapri” and has Book II begin with “General Lavine-eccentric” a jaunty music hall satire.

Other than the changed order, there is little about Ilic’s interpretations that would make his version of the Préludes stand out among many others. ( lists 70 available recordings of Book I, 62 of Book II.) In general, he seems to shy away from extremes; there are few instances of exaggeratedly slow playing, or, more importantly, extremely quiet sound. The damper pedal tends to be used sparingly – not a bad thing – until one compares Ilic’s playing with that of a great colorist like Gieseking who achieves a vastly greater variety of sound by using varied pedal depths and imaginative combinations of all three pedals. Nor does Ilic achieve the refined clarity of Paul Jacobs’ more objective approach.

Debussy’s notation, more than that of any earlier keyboard composer, explains in great detail the kind of sounds and effects he is after. His marking of dynamics is meticulous, particularly in demanding quieter levels of sound, as are his specific indications of where to speed up or hold back (“serrez”, “cédez” and many others). In the Préludes, more than in his earlier piano music, Debussy explores a sense of musical space. In the slower pieces, with their sparse textures, time can feel suspended. Rests and sounds hanging over in the pedal are as important as notes played. The effect is about as close to poetry as music gets and Debussy’s titles, tempo indications and verbal performance instructions, all in French, are a kind of poetry of their own.

What I miss in most of Ilic’s performances (with a few exceptions) is a personal response to the music’s poetry whether it be through lightness of touch, the savoring of an odd detail, or the sense of a smile behind the sound (very hard to define, but “les Collines d’Anacapri” and “Bruyères” need it). This is not to say that he doesn’t play competently or technically well. He responds best to some of the faster preludes giving a fine performance of the most powerful piece in the collection, “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest,” albeit downplaying its fury, and managing the difficult “Feux d’artifice” quite dazzlingly, though failing to provide the needed repose in the section marked “à l’aise.” “Les tierces alternées,” (an étude that found its way into the Préludes like a “volunteer” tomato in a flower garden), receives a fluent, enjoyable reading, imaginatively pedalled. Best of all is “La Cathédrale engloutie,” which Ilic programs as Book I’s finale. Here, he seems fully engaged. Adopting a slightly faster tempo than what one usually hears (this is his approach to most of the slower preludes, but in this case it works), Ilic holds the piece’s sections together with well-judged tempo relationships and he seems to take Debussy’s instruction for how to play the loud chords in the middle (“Sonore sans dureté”) as an inspiration to seek a special burnished sound for the whole piece. There is none of the pomposity or fragmentation that one often hears in performances of this most orchestrally conceived of the preludes.

Ilic is generally less convincing in the slower pieces where he misses many expressive opportunities by treating Debussy’s markings too casually, minimizing them, or, at times, disregarding them altogether. His tempos tend to be a little pushed and, in case after case, he fails to make a clear distinction between “p” and “pp,” settling for an all-purpose, “healthy” projected sound quality. For example, at the twentieth measure of “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” there is a lushly written 5-bar passage that begins in B minor. (Its floating, waltz-like rhythm and chordal texture bring to mind any number of passages in triple meter by Brahms, unintentionally on Debussy’s part, I’m sure.) Here Ilic ignores Debussy’s important instruction: “en animant peu à peu”, so instead of subtly gaining speed, the music feels earthbound and because no forward movement has taken place, the instruction to slow down, (“cédez”) marked at the end of the fifth measure (which Ilic does observe) loses its meaning. In “La fille aux cheveux de lin” Debussy places a long slur over the first twelve notes of the opening melody. He writes “Très calme et doucement expressif” and “sans rigeur” just under the melodic line. Surely the composer is asking for an absence of any percussive attack or sense of disjointedness in the flow of the line, yet Ilic makes an odd rearticulation on the seventh note, truncating the long phrase, and where the melody winds down with a long D-flat in the next bar, he gives a decisive little thump.

I wish that Ilic had chosen a group of preludes – the ones that he truly identifies with and about which he has developed a strong point of view – instead of recording all of them. The idea of performing either or both books in their entirety would probably have been foreign to Debussy. Recording all of them simply because a pianist is able to or because they fit neatly onto one disc is a mistake. Paraty, a new French label, has recorded Ilic’s well-tuned Steinway flatteringly, though perhaps some of my complaints about the lack of quieter sounds are due to slightly too close miking. The booklet contains a general essay on Debussy’s Préludes and the cover features a close-up of the glowering pianist.

©2008 Paul Orgel

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