Veteran Piano Masters Celebrate Debussy’s Genius

Written by

When I first started listening to classical music in my late teens, the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) provided not only a gateway into the genre, but opened the door to a lifetime of loving his music. Debussy’s timeless compositions invite the listener to explore their wonders. The same can be said for works by his fellow French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Their music still sounds fresh to my ears, and continues to fascinate and enchant me after all these years. This is not the formulaic and repetitious classical music that many people find stuffy and old-fashioned.

This year marks the centenary of Debussy’s death, and to my delight, a plethora of new albums celebrating his music have been released. I wrote earlier this year about a stunning Debussy album by the young South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho. I’m now enjoying two new Deutsche Grammophon releases featuring Debussy’s piano genius, but this time from seasoned masters with very different approaches.

The first album comes from veteran Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, who plays Debussy’s Préludes II with supreme technique, speed, and a full understanding of the complexities of this later work. Composed between 1910 and 1912, the pieces of this radical suite are impressionistic, and Debussy gave them evocative titles which were printed at the end of each piece in parenthesis. Rather than “sonata this” or “adagio that,” we get names like “Brouillards” an Occitan word for mists, or “Feuilles mortes” (Dead leaves) or “Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses” (The Fairies are exquisite dancers). Debussy created a musical analogue of the impressionist painters of his day. The music is edgy, unpredictable, and totally modern.

Listen to Pollini play the final prelude of the suite, called “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks):

I’ve also immensely enjoyed the new Debussy album Clair de Lune, from the 94-year old pianist Menahem Pressler, longtime pianist of the famous Beaux Arts Trio. Forced to flee Nazi Germany after Crystal Night in November 1938, Pressler, then 15, settled in Tel-Aviv with his family. As an encouragement to continue his studies, Pressler’s German piano teacher sent him a parcel of music scores, including Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, a piece for solo piano. Pressler has adored Debussy’s work ever since that first introduction. He went on to win first prize at the 1946 Debussy competition, which launched his musical career.

Pressler’s style arrested me immediately. He plays Debussy’s music more slowly and measured than Pollini. It’s similar to eating a 3-star meal very slowly, to better savor each sonic morsel. Pressler is now an elder statesman of classical piano. Watching him play in the video below reminds me a little of seeing the late Andrés Segovia perform over a period of years in the 1970s and 1980s. The last time I saw Segovia, he walked out on stage with a cane and his assistant had to hand him his guitar. His playing was slower but each note counted even more than earlier times. You appreciated it even more, too.

Pressler plays Debussy with a lifelong reverence for his idol. The new album also includes gorgeous works by Ravel and Fauré. It’s truly a French musical feast—food for the ears, heart, and spirit. You can listen to the full album on Spotify here.

I want to mention a third Deutsche Grammophon album from Maurizio Pollini’s son Daniele Pollini, playing music by Chopin, Scriabin, and Stockhausen. The late bassist Charlie Haden, on one of his many visits to Morning Becomes Eclectic during the 1980’s, brought in Maurizio Pollini’s beautiful recording of Chopin’s etudes. Daniele Pollini plays these same, sparkling, demonically difficult etudes on his new album. Interestingly, Scriabin slept with Chopin’s music under his pillow in the early part of his career, hoping to absorb some of the Polish composer-pianist’s genius. The album features a selection of the Russian composer’s later works, as well as an acrid work by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Father and son actually play together on Maurizio Pollini’s album, on a three-movement suite called En blanc et noir that Debussy composed in 1915 for two pianos. It’s the first time that father and son have recorded together.

Maurizio and Daniele Pollini (Photo © York Christoph Riccius / Deutche Grammophon) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Listen to the energetic first movement, “Avec emportement”:

I love these three new albums and continue to savor their beauties. I highly recommend them.