Two Impressions Of Debussy (Who Hated That Word)

When one compares timings on two new recordings of Debussy’s ‘Préludes’ Book II, Alexander Melnikov is slower and Pollini is faster in all but one. Their sonic character also differs. (Deutsche Grammophon, Harmonia Mundi)
By Paul E. Robinson

Debussy: Préludes Book II, Maurizio Pollini, piano. (Paired with En blanc et noir, for two pianos, with Daniele Pollini.) Deutsche Grammophon DG 479 8490. Total Time: 48:41.

Debussy: Préludes Book II, Alexander Melnikov. (Paired with La Mer, for piano four-hands, with Olga Pashchenko.) Harmonia Mundi HMM 902302. Total Time: 63:23.

DIGITAL REVIEW – In preparation for reviewing these recordings, I re-read Marguerite Long’s At the Piano with Debussy. An acclaimed pianist with special authority in French repertoire, Long (1874-1966) studied with Debussy and became one of his favorite interpreters. In At the Piano with Debussy, she describes what she learned from the composer about each of his major works for the piano. A fascinating introduction to Debussy, the book is especially useful as a primer for evaluating performances on recordings made almost exactly 100 years after his death by Maurizio Pollini and Alexander Melnikov.

It was probably Pierre Boulez, more than anyone else in recent memory, who reminded us how original Debussy’s musical expression was and how influential his innovations in harmony, melody, and form were. In 1913, when his contemporaries Stravinsky and Schoenberg were writing music that audiences found quite shocking, Debussy, in his own, quiet way, with his opera Pelléas et Mélisande and dozens of piano pieces, was changing the very language of music.

As Long wrote in 1960: “The youth of today does not know what Pelléas meant to those who were present at its birth. One had to be 20 to love the freshness of its unfamiliar thoughts and to listen with restless delight to its strange, never-before-heard harmonies.”

Anyone interested in Debussy’s piano music would be well advised to listen to the piano-roll recordings that the composer made in 1913 on the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano. He claimed to be “astonished” by the quality of these recordings; indeed, who would not after listening to the dreadful acoustical recordings of his day?

These piano-roll recordings confirm what Long has tried to convey to us in her book, that Debussy was a fine pianist with firm ideas about how his music should be played. He seems to be improvising at the keyboard, letting the musical ideas take him to surprising places and back again. Listening more closely, however, one notices that there is structure in these pieces, a strict use of rhythm, a wide range of emotions, as well as tenderness, charm, and beauty of sound.

In other words, the improvisational quality in Debussy’s music is an illusion. The composer knows exactly where he is going and has provided detailed instructions in his scores on how to get there.

In her recollections of lessons with Debussy, Long notes again and again how strict the composer was about tempo markings and dynamics, and how angry he would get with performers who felt they could do as they pleased for the sake of virtuoso effect.

After reading Long’s recollections and listening to the composer’s recordings, it is particularly interesting to turn to Alexander Melnikov’s Préludes Book II as performed on a 1885 Erard restored in 2014 by Markus Fischinger. To my ears, this piano sound is similar to the sound of Debussy’s 1913 Welte-Mignon piano rolls – quite “modern,” if you will.

Melnikov: Sharply etched ‘Préludes on a restored Erard. (Molina Visuals)

For the record, Debussy’s own piano was a Bechstein. While no piano credit is given in the booklet for the Maurizio Pollini recording of the Préludes Book II, a good guess is that it’s a modern Hamburg Steinway.

As I have already noted, Debussy was adamant about tempo markings; unfortunately, since he provided only one metronome marking – for No. 5, “Bruyères” – it is impossible to be sure about the basic tempo he had in mind for most of Préludes Book II. That said, when one compares timings on the new recordings it is striking to note that Melnikov is slower and Pollini is faster in all but one.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that we must be guided not by timings but by other parameters. We must instead figure out whether the tempos taken by these two pianists make sense of the music.

Melnikov clearly takes more time to let the music unfold and in so doing illuminates more detail. An advocate of Pollini might argue that Melnikov, with his slower tempos, is sentimentalizing the music, being self-indulgent or attempting to tease out an extra layer of profundity that is simply not there.

Pollini’s recorded sound is smooth and unfailingly beautiful.
(© Christoph Riccius for Deutsche Grammophon)

These Préludes are very short – the longest is four minutes, and most are much shorter. Debussy has something to say about tempo or dynamics in almost every bar, and he expected his instructions to be followed. And while he intended his music to be suggestive and poetic – he hated the word “impressionistic” – there is nothing vague or dreamy about the precision he brought to the compositional process. It probably comes as a surprise to pianists approaching these scores for the first time to discover that the composer’s markings, with very few exceptions, are technical, i.e. “soft,” “softer,” “faster,” “slower,” etc. One exception is to be found in No. 6 “Général Lavine – eccentric,” where we find the direction “spirituel et discret.” I have no idea what this marking means, which is probably why Debussy generally avoided such instructions.

Another point should be made about the Préludes Book II. While there are titles – “Brouillards” (Mists), “Feuilles mortes”  (Dead Leaves), “La Puerta del Vino” (The Wine Gate), etc. – Debussy stipulated that they were to be printed at the end of each piece, not the beginning. Apparently, he didn’t want the listener to think of the music as a representation of the title; rather, he wanted the listener to think of the title as the inspiration for the piece, and at least in his mind, that was quite aother thing.

The performances on these new recordings are quite different, not only in terms of tempo, but also in the character of the recorded sound, the Pollini being smooth and unfailingly beautiful and the Melnikov more sharply etched. Ultimately, the conception of the music and the manner of execution are different as well. For example, in “Général Lavine – eccentric,” a portrait of the American circus clown Edward La Vine, the bass line is the key to Debussy’s character study, in which “woodenness” was the operative word. Melnikov makes us laugh by punching out this bass line with unusual emphasis, while Pollini seems to attach no significance to it.

Generally speaking, Pollini gives us wonderful piano playing – he is superb in “Feux d’artifice” – whereas Melnikov, mercurial and surprising while adhering to the composer’s instructions, gives us imaginative character studies.

Father and son: Maurizio and Daniele Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon)

Each CD has an interesting filler. The DG release features Pollini with his son Daniele playing En blanc et noir, three pieces for two pianos, the last of which is dedicated to Stravinsky, already famous as the composer of Le sacre du printemps, L’oiseau de feu, and Petrushka. These are brilliant pieces played with stunning virtuosity. The Harmonia Mundi recording has the rarely-heard four-hand version of Debussy’s masterpiece La Mer, one of the great classics of orchestral literature, in which the originality and power of the orchestration is an outstanding feature. In the composer’s four-hand version, the listener is treated to a fresh look that reveals often overlooked details of harmony and texture in this familiar piece. Melnikov and Olga Pashchenko give it a totally committed performance, and the sheer volume they produce in the final pages has to be heard to be believed.

Finally, while the whole world – thanks to a well-organized campaign by the Bernstein Estate – seems to be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, it should be noted that this is also a Debussy anniversary year. He died on March 25, 1918. While several record companies are paying tribute, the collection that caught my eye is Warner Classics’ massive 33-CD set (565660) devoted to The Complete Works, the first time that any record company has attempted a complete edition of Debussy’s compositions. The set includes not only all of Debussy’s published works but also unfinished pieces, arrangements by Debussy, and a CD devoted to the composer’s own performances on acoustic and piano roll recordings. For more details on this collection, go here.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for (formerly

Centennial tribute: Warner Classics’ 33-disc set commemorative edition of the complete Debussy.