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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) 
Préludes Books I (1909-10) and II (1911-13) [77:28] 
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) [2:18] 
Craig Sheppard (piano) 
rec. live, 22-23 October 2012, Meany Theater, Seattle 
ROMÉO RECORDS 7297 [79:42]

In recent years I’ve greatly admired several recordings by the American pianist, Craig Sheppard. These have included a fine set of the Bach Partitas (review), excellent readings of the last three piano sonatas by Schubert (review) and, above all, his magisterial survey of the Beethoven sonatas (review). More recently he has released a set of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (review) though I have not heard that. Now we have a new recording of the complete Debussy Préludes. In accordance with Sheppard’s usual practice these have been recorded during live recitals in the Meany Theater, Seattle and the pianist uses his own Hamburg Steinway D instrument, made in 1984. There’s applause at the end of each Book of Préludes but otherwise the audience is commendably silent. Sheppard plays the pieces in their published order.
 
There are any number of recordings of Debussy’s Préludes in the catalogue. My colleague, Jonathan Woolf has already reviewed this performance by Craig Sheppard and I would recommend that you also read his thoughts on this set, not least because he’s been able to make comparisons with recordings of these pieces by pianists from the past, chiefly Daniel Ericourt (1903-1998) who had a direct link with Debussy himself.
 
I enjoyed Craig Sheppard’s performances enormously. The Préludes are, in effect, miniature tone poems with the possible exception of ‘Les tierces alternées’, which is more akin to a study. Apart from the myriad technical challenges the pianist has to think himself into the meaning of each piece, one after another in rapid succession, and then convey Debussy’s mood and tone-painting to the listener; all this within a short space of time for the majority of these pieces are over and done in around three minutes. I’d say that Sheppard is completely successful in putting across the character of each of these pieces and, needless to say, the technical difficulties are all surmounted with aplomb.
 
Among the highlights are the two very different evocations of the wind in Book I. ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ portrays a capricious breeze but ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ is a very different matter. The latter is a turbulent and unpredictable wind and one never knows from what direction the next gust will come. Sheppard illustrates both types of wind imaginatively and I particularly admired the dynamic virtuosity that he brings to the second of these pieces. He’s perceptive too. For example, in his notes he remarks of ‘Des pas sur la neige’ that the French title speaks of footprints ‘on’ the snow whereas the conventional English usage would be ‘in’. The French way with the phrase suggests to Sheppard ‘treading ever so carefully …’ [his italics] and that comes across in his playing, yet I hear delicacy and not nervousness in his careful tread.
 
Also in Book I we find ‘La cathédrale engloutie’. In the opening Sheppard conjures up deep pools of sound from his Steinway and when the cathedral’s great organ sounds at the climax the sonority is most imposing. As the building sinks back under the waves and beyond our gaze Sheppard’s exalted technical control and imaginative sense combine to impart a fine feeling of mystery. In complete contrast - one of several instances where the pianist has to make a very full and rapid mental shift - the following ‘La danse de Puck’ is despatched with finger-work of Elfin delicacy.
 
Sheppard describes ‘Feuilles mortes’ in Book II as “otherworldly and mysterious”. It’s easy enough to make a statement like that, far harder to convey it through your playing but that’s just what he achieves. It’s astonishing how authentically Debussy conveys the sound of Spain in ‘La puerta del vino’ merely on the prompting of the image on a postcard which he received from Manuel de Falla, it seems. Sheppard brings out the sultriness and passion in the music admirably. Equally impressive is the atmosphere and poetry in his reading of ‘La terrace des audiences du clair de lune’ and I really appreciated the calm and poise that he brings to ‘Canope’. Writing of ‘Les tierces alternées’, in which he displays great virtuosity, he says that “its difficulties (are) hidden to all but pianists”. In all honesty that’s a description that could apply to all these 24 pieces but a top rank pianist - and Craig Sheppard is certainly one such - will make the listener forget all about technical difficulties and marvel instead at the poetry, wit and descriptive imagination displayed by Debussy in these marvellous and greatly varied short pieces. 

As an encore Sheppard gives us Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. I’m mildly surprised that there’s no reference to this in the booklet for it’s of considerable interest to Debussy aficionados since it was, I believe, his last piano piece and the manuscript was lost until 2001. Roy Howat discussed the piece, which was never intended for publication, it seems, in a 2012 lecture entitled ‘Resonances of Baudelaire in Debussy’s Piano Music’. From this we learn that the manuscript was given by Debussy to his coal merchant in gratitude for maintaining coal deliveries during the bitter winter of 1917. Hence the title (‘Evenings lit by burning coals’) is very apt. It’s an especially appropriate encore to the Préludes since, as Mr Howat points out, it opens with a thematic quotation from ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ and it also, apparently contains what he calls “fleeting echoes” of ‘Canope’ and ‘Les tierces alternées’. This is subdued, delicate music, which is the perfect contrast to the final Prélude, the virtuosic ‘Feux d’artifices’, and Sheppard gives a lovely, poetic reading of it.
 
This is an admirable traversal of Debussy’s Préludes. The very high standard of playing and the evident thoughtfulness of the interpretations are exactly what we’ve come to expect from this fine pianist. The recorded sound is very good, capturing the Steinway’s sound clearly and truthfully. Craig Sheppard’s own booklet notes are informative and enjoyable.
 
John Quinn 

See also review by Jonathan Woolf
 

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