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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes, Book 1 (1910) [45.31]
Préludes, Book 2 (1911-13) [44.50]
Eloïse Bella Kohn (piano)
rec. 2017, Temple du Bon-Secours, Paris
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC18085 [2 CDs: 90:21]

For her debut album on Hänssler Classic, pianist Eloïse Bella Kohn has chosen Debussy’s complete Préludes. Debussy detested the term “Impressionism”, yet the colour palette and textures of the Préludes are as evocative as any Monet or Manet painting.

Paris-born, Kohn commenced her musical education in 1991 aged four at the Yamaha music school aged. She entered the Conservatoire de Paris, studying with Michel Béroff, Eric Le Sage, Denis Pascal, David Fray and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. In a YouTube promotional video filmed in an opera house, she tells us that she gave her first recital aged sixteen at Debussy’s house near Paris. She first played the complete Debussy Préludes aged eighteen or nineteen and remarks that revisiting them after a period of years makes it is easier to find the right emotions for these pieces.

The twenty-four Préludes are divided into two books of twelve, completed in 1910 and 1913 respectively. Debussy does not follow a strict scheme of key signatures like collections of preludes by Bach and Chopin’s Op. 28, which cover all twenty-four major and minor keys and every piece having a descriptive title seems to place them nearer to the genre-pieces of Schumann and Greig, both of whom he admired.

Clearly there is more than one way of interpreting these Préludes which is especially noticeable in the chosen tempi when Kohn is compared to my two favourite sets from Steven Osborne recorded in 2006 at Henry Wood Hall, London on Hyperion and Walter Gieseking recorded in 1953-54 (mono) at Abbey Road, London on EMI Great Recordings of the Century. Kohn’s speeds are considerably quicker than Osborne in virtually every piece, but markedly slower than Gieseking’s. Kuhn displays a remarkable feeling for the descriptive character and markedly varying atmosphere of each piece, notably in her affectionate rendition of the famous La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). Often played as a stand-alone piece in recitals, La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) is given plenty of the requisite mysterious atmosphere. Also notable is Kuhn’s creation of an idyllic, dreamlike quality in her playing of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air). An innately sensitive performer, Kuhn enters Debussy’s intimate world, creating myriad shifting moods and tone colours. Yet occasionally, I wanted a slightly wider dynamic to provide additional character. The reasonably bright sound quality is satisfyingly clear and although the tone of her Yamaha CFX concert grand is appealing, a slightly warmer sound would surely have enhanced the effectiveness of these pieces. There is a helpful essay written by Dr. Jens Markowsky in the accompanying booklet.

Eloïse Bella Kohn’s impressively played debut album of Debussy Préludes is testament to her outstanding talent. Even if you already have these Debussy works, this album is worthy of your consideration.

Michael Cookson



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