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Debussy Preludes

Steven Osborne

Hyperion CDA67530


I do not respond with the same personal enthusiasm to the Preludes as I do to some other Debussy in playing him, I prefer his neo-classicism (Pour le Piano in particular) to these impressionist pieces. Although some preludes are fine and obviously appropriate characterisations (La cathedrale engloutie or La fille aux chevux de lin); others, such as La puerta de vino, (the famous gate in Granada ) have always seemed opaque to me. But in a way this fits well my view of Osborne's set his view also seems neo-classical, straight.


The disc starts wonderfully well, with the Delphic dancers measured in rhythm and mystical at the same time, easily one of the most striking interpretations. Throughout the set, Osborne's playing is always extremely polished, with very fast and neat fingerwork; he is also very structurally aware, so where the music is consciously etude-like, as with the tierces alternees , or built up from phrases of very different character, as with General Lavine or the moonlight terrace, the interpretation is extremely satisfying.


But where there is a dreamier kind of Impressionism, or where the passagework needs variation to be interesting, I am less convinced. Ondine or Fireworks sound too much like just more studies, Pickwick, Minstrels, Dead leaves and Canope don't completely hold the attention, while the famous virtuosic set-piece of Les collines d'Anacapri is just too controlled and doesn't quite take off at the end as it should.


The contrast between Osborne's virtues and shortcomings is perfectly shown in the well-known preludes towards the end of Book 1 the flaxen-haired girl is beautifully drawn, with poise, grace and affection, then the interrupted serenade is so carefully planned that the interruptions seem choreographed, part of the serenade itself. Similarly, the sunken cathedral and Puck's dance are intellectually and musically really well thought out, but not as spooky or capricious respectively as could be hoped for.


It's impossible to define precisely what makes great playing, but an element of surprise, of making the listener perdeive something unexpected, is clearly part of it. This set, though completely idiomatic, beautifully played and produced, and clearly interpreted with love, nevertheless lacks that greatness for me. The main problem is too much of a sense of sameness. It is impossible to criticise any detail - everything is in its place, neat, and always varied as to mood and dynamics, and yet I do not always feel the pieces take wing and show true imagination. The recording manages to combine a warm sound, with plenty of piano overtones, and yet retains very clear detail.


Jill Crossland


Liner notes and generous sound samples at http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/details/67530.asp


See also Ying Chang in Classical Source.