Claude Debussy - Préludes pour piano Livres 1 & 2

Claude Debussy
24 Preludes for piano (complete works)

Alain Planès
piano Steinway

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°89
"Diapason d’Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°317
"Référence" de Compact n°12
"Victoires de la Musique 1986" Meilleur enregistrement de musique classique française


Notes on Debussy's Preludes

The piano without a master

"You see, one always writes too much and one never thinks enough", declared Debussy in 1909. Debussy himself, who wrote little, thought a great deal. At any rate he made sure that his works were the final expression of his thought.
"For the last 12 years, Sir, Pelléas and Mélisande have been my daily companions". It was in this way that he described his study of characters : a continuous encounter. "I let them sing inside me" : cohabitation became parasitical. It follows that thought is only fertile when it is completely inhabited. Debussy has been shown to be a perfectionist and this argument has been used to explain the scarcity of his output. His best works are notable for their economy and efficiency. But to be able to "say as much as possible with as little means as possible" requires, on a wider scale, refined and discriminating knowledges which goes straight to the point. In this way the philosopher's reasoning is condensed and the mathematician's demonstration is narrowed down. Seen in these terms, the musical composition becomes a continuous mental activity that is limiting and almost painful to fix on paper. It is because he thought a great deal that Debussy composed little.

Let us reread the beginning of "l'entretien avec Monsieur Croche", the only real personal document he published. A musician dreams in the privacy of his own room. He asks himself two questions ("How shall I express myself "? and "How shall I finish the work"?) and these two questions which he utters seem curiously to overlap. One can discern here more than an echo of uncertainty (there is certainty, too) associated with Debussy at work. Making music, he tells us, does not begin from the moment it is conveyed on paper; to complete a work entails fixing things that are happening elsewhere. In thought. This dispels the image of the impressionist composer connected to the world by his senses alone, which are themselves directly linked by some mysterious oscillograph to pen and manuscript. Our understanding of the Preludes has suffered greatly from this view. Debussy mentioned explicitly in his titles that "to think" is always "to think of". Like the artist, sculptor, poet and musician feeds on feelings, he confessed. Does this mean he reproduced them as they are? It is precisely here that the confusion arose.
Translation? Reproduction? Realism? Symbolism? Impressionism? The question is stubbornly asked by music critics. When Alfred Cortot in his "Cours d'Interprétation" undertakes a detailed description of a given prelude, he seems to be looking at the screens of a comic strip. Taking support from having been "At the piano with Claude Debussy", Marguerite Long appears as a close observer and writes in reference to "Danseuses de Delphes" : Pages of a majestic rhythm inspired by a group of 3 female danseurs, a piece of sculpture from the famous Greek temple. The Master had seem the reproduction in the Louvre and we may already note the part played by photography in the Debussian interpretation of the visual shock. Here, his musical work is so pure that we could almost follow its progress with our finger.
When Debussy first played this Prelude at the Société Nationale, it was played slowly, with almost metronomic precision. Its sounds were velvety and feature a conventional density, so that the figures of the expressed low-relief became more like priestesses than female danseurs; "The Last two chords are like fall prostrate in adoration". If the danseurs have to turn into priestesses for this analysis to gain some coherence, who must we believe? As a reaction against this kind of exaggeration, let us suggest calling the Preludes "thoughts" (with the double convivial and Pascalian connotation). And let us resign ourselves to the fact that the words mean no more than what they say, that the music only expresses what it can, "reality" being "reproduced" by neither one nor the other.

Pictures of an interior landscape

Debussy was no photographer or postcard copier and cannot therefore be considered the "Utrillo" of music. This does not mean that he remained estranged to the great debate on realism which shook French artistic circle during his lifetime.
When Debussy composed his "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune", Cézanne was working on "La Montagne Sainte-Victoire". When he played the first Preludes, Monet was completing "Les Nymphéas". Picasso had already exhibited his "Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Marcel Proust had finished translating John Ruskin. Does art reflect the eternal or the ephemeral? Is it meant to serve the universal or the particular? Is it governed by the golden number or is released by the odd number? Debussy did not fail to enter the debate in his own way : "I wish to sing my interior landscape with the naive candour of a child..."

The Preludes are therefore interior landscapes, as eloquently indicated by the position and writing of the titles which are given at the end of each piece, contained in brackets and preceded by three dots. This enigmatic layout, a subject of which we have not heard the last, may perhaps be elucidated by referring to painting : one discovers a painting, one may adore it without even thinking that it has a title. The title is not the painted object. Indeed, to read the title, we must take our eye off the painting. Nor is the piece of music in itself a title. The title actually adds parasitic resonances.
The "musical dreams" which the Preludes are, nevertheless have a strong need for words. For only sound words ("Canope"), image words ("Des pas sur la neige"), symbol words ("Danseuses de Delphes", "Minstrels"), only poetry ("Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir") gently lead towards the superior reality of thought. And without them, how can we say that this thought has fed upon the realities of the world? By placing his titles in an epilogue, as mere commentary to the music, Debussy seems to have wanted to manifest his trust and mistrust in them, to separate the time of the music and the space of the words, to suggest that the relationship between the two, if it is to be equitable, must be expressed as an incidental. Presented in this way, the titles of the Preludes seem to be "spoken" rather than written. They are words. Why have performers not yet thought of saying them aloud?
It must be noted that this system of titles can only work a posteriori on the initial reading of the Preludes - it cannot work when they are played for the first time in concert -, since the memory of the title will then irrevocably channel the imagination. Debussy must have known this. But he still stuck to his unusual presentation, which accords with his habit of keeping his works for his own use and of abandoning them without regret to be performed inadequately. Similarly, the musical literary scores of Eric Satie were at this same period unplayable and gratuitous. It was a time of passion for the unique and unusable object.

What's bred in the bone...

"Debussy declared in 1911 : "The noise of the sea, the curve of a horizon, the wind in the leaves, a bird's cry, convey numerous impressions in us. And Suddenly, without our least consent, one of these memories spreads outside us and is expressed in musical language. It carries within its own harmony". He did not weight up the implications of his rashness : generations of critics were to persist in searching for nature in his Preludes.

They all identified the same sea swells, the same columns, the same processions, the same church-bells, the same gusts of wind, the same frenzied rounds, the same rustling of winds, the same espagnolades. It is true to say that Debussy uses "realistic effects" which range from the typical melody and rhythm to the straight-forward quotation. But the fact cannot be ignored that these effects, far from breaking or diluting his "musical dream", on the contrary underline its boldness and singularity.
The more we advance into the chronology of the Preludes, the more we plunge into the second volume, the more these effects tend to become rare, while the harmony becomes immaterial, the writing becomes loosen, the melodic line deviates ("Canope", "Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune") and the references to tonality dim. The couple of notes of the Marseillaise which timidly end "Feux d'Artifice" (the most majestic but also the most broken and atonal of the 24 pieces) seem to emerge from a lost world. We then appreciate to which extent the "real" has disappeared, to what extent we have forgotten it. We have something of the reaction of the farm manager who Proust describes in "A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs" : "He had recognized in a picture of Esltir a wooden cross which was planted at the entrance to Rivebelle : It is really her, he repeated in amazement. The four pieces are there! The trouble he is going to!"

Discovering the keyboard

Debussy did not forgive Ravel for wanting to set Mallarmé to music at the same time as himself. He broke with Satie when the latter claimed to have rights over Materlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. He had, to say the least, a keen sense of ownership combined with an open contempt for Wagner, Berlioz, Beethoven and Mozart (whose merit he finally recognized). He claimed to have been influenced by Bach and Palestrina and he admired Moussorgski. However, the one person who could have exerted a real influence on his piano writing, Chopin, he remained silent. Still, he did dedicate his "Etudes" to Chopin. To the famous statement "there is no Debussy school. I have no pupils. I am myself", he might have added "I have no master".
He was the musician of the clean sweep. The champion of "sincerity", of authenticity, the proud detractor of Ravelian trickery. He was in his own way a kind of primitive asserting his right to the most naive "grammars of art" to which he alone, through work and asceticism, held the key : a musician alone in search of that supreme art, the natural.
Our thoughts again turn to the master painter practicing the innocence of "A la recherche du temps perdu".
"The effort which Elstir made to rid himself in the presence of reality of every idea of his intelligence was all the more admirable in that this man, before taking up painting, appeared ignorant, forgot everything out of integrity, since what one knows is not one's own, indeed had an exceptionally cultivated intelligence".

The transformations which Debussy imposed on Opera scandalized his contemporaries. But it does not seem that the boldness of his piano writing caused similar shock waves. This is because his bold piano works disclosed to small groups of colleagues or the initiated at a time when, thanks to Ricardo Viñes, the piano recital belonged to the field of the avant-garde.

The modern piano, that of Jean Barraqué and Pierre Boulez, nevertheless was born with Debussy's Preludes, more than with Scriabine's later pieces for piano. The dispersed range of volumes is emphasized by the spread of tessituras, the performer must be able to phrase with equal weight extremely low and high notes without passing trough the medium pitch. The constant variation of sound colours assumes extremely precision of attack, of touch and of nuances. Everything is written on the score, but everything catches the pianist on the wrong foot (or rather on the wrong hand), everything tends to make him alert, to disarm him. "Music", said Debussy, "is superior to the other arts in that it can travel in space". This assumes, with the aid of the soft pedal and particularly the loud pedal, a reassignment of functions and forces within the limits of the keyboard.

Anne Rey.

The place of the Preludes

Debussy's piano works assumed initially a most conventional appearance with such uninteresting titles as "Danse", "Arabesque", "Ballade", "Valse romantique", "Nocturne", "Suite bergamasque" or in the case of the collection entitled "Pour le piano", "Prelude", "Toccata" and "Sarabande".

A turning-point occurred in 1904 with "Les Estampes", a turning point confirmed by "D'un cahier d'esquisses", "Masques", "L"Isle Joyeuse" and Images I and II with their clear pictorial connotations. The Preludes which combine the two trends (i.e., Chopin type titles, evocative sub-titles) were followed only by the abstract "Etudes," explicitly presented as a homage to Chopin and announced by the penultimate piece of the Second Volume of the Preludes : "Les tierces alternates". This odd transition between two apparently opposing cycles could only be intentional and significant when one is familiar with Debussy. We still have to explain and analyze.

First volume

Danseuses de Delphes (composed December 7th, 1909).
Slow Sarabande in A-fiat major, comparable in its classical tones to the "Danse Sacrée pour harpe".

Voiles (December 12th, 1909).
The title could refer to the veils worn by the above-mentioned danseurs or to an evening by the sea, white sails gliding over the still water. Constant use of the scale by tones punctuated by four measures of pentaphone intervals on the black keys.

Le vent dans la plaine (December 11th, 1909).
Memory of Verlaine's Ariettes oubliées : "Le vent dans la plaine suspend son haleine".

"Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir" (January 1st, 1910).
Quotation of a verse from Baudelaire's famous "Harmonie du soir".

Les collines d'Anacapri (December 26th, 1909).
"A Lattice of tarentellas encircles the Bay of Naples, its villas and its grottos. In the middle of the frenzied dances a simple popular song emerges, sluggard, marvellous, amorous, suggesting all the passion, tenderness and boldness of a napolitan ragazzo" (Marguerite Long).

Des pas sur la neige (December 27th, 1909).
Cortot suggested making the ostinato theme crunch like snow under foot.

Ce qu'a vu le Vent d'Ouest (undated).
"A glossing of the eruptive second parallels : an extreme case in Debussy's opus" (Harry Halbreich).

La fille aux cheveux de lin (January 15-16, 1910).
Title of a childhood melody dedicated to Madame Vasnier and which sets to music the Chanson écossaise of Lecomte de Lisle.

La sérenade ininterrompue (undated).
In 3/8 time and evoking the jota. On two occasions, the introduction of a completely foreign element (moderate in - major, 2/4 time) creates a strange feeling of drawing apart in space. This is a textual creation of Iberia.

La Cathédrale engloutie (undated).
Evocation of the legend of the town of Ys? A reminder of the Renan's "Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse"? or a homage to Monet who in 1895 exhibited some thirty paintings all showing the west face of Rouen cathedral

La danse de Puck (February 4th, 1910).
The efl from Shakespeare's A Mid Summers's Night Dream. 

Minstrels (January 5th, 1910).
A brand of humour generally described as "anglo-saxon".

Second volume

(composed between 1910 and 1912).

"No theme, no development, no traditional form, no counterpoint and no more harmony in the usual sense of the word; neither melody nor accompaniment; no main and second voices; no diatonic, or come to that chromatic, tonality. Is there a tonality? Nothing that brings to mind contemporaries like Schönberg or Mahler. Instead, a sound chemistry whose processes replace traditional structures" (Dieter Schnebel).

Feuilles mortes
Inordinately enlarged tonality, rhythmic subtlety.

La puerta del Vino
Debussy never knew Spain. He apparently was inspired by a photo of the Alhambra which Manuel de Falla sent him. The indication on the score reads "With sudden contrasts of extreme violence and passionate softness".

"Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses"
Bi-tonal opposition between both hands, the right hand on the black keys, the left hand on the white keys. Final evocation of the horn of Weber's "Oberon".

Celtic echo of "La fille aux cheveux de lin".

"General Lavine" - excentric -
The american comic juggler Edward La Vine played the piano with his toes at the Folies-Marigny.

La terrasse des audiences du clair du lune
A dream imagined India which deeply influenced Olivier Messiaen. The title is perhaps borrowed from Pierre Loti.

Sister unfairly unrecognized by Ravel's Ondine.

Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
Dickensonian hero. Quotation from "God save the King".

A canopic jar is an Etruscan or Egyptian funeral urn with a cover representing a symbolic head. Debussy owned two of these urns.

Les tierces alternées
"It is in the sultry and still blue that the alternate thirds, flapping their wings, move on the spot in their soft and monotonous flight... How dry and blue the noon ether is!" (Vladimir Jankelevich).

Feux d'Artifice
The pianistic response to "Nocturnes (Fêtes)" for orchestra and the culmination of the two cycles of Preludes.

Taken from "Claude Debussy" by Harry Halbreich, Edition Fayard, Paris, 1980.

Alain Planès


Alain Planès est né à Lyon, en 1948. A l'âge de 12 ans, il décroche un premier prix de piano dans le conservatoire de cette ville. Ensuite, voyage obligé pour Paris où il est admis dans la classe de Jean Doyen. Mais c'est au contact de Jacques Février qu'il réalise que le piano n'est, à tout, prendre, puisque polyphonique et malléable sur le plan de la sonorité et de la dynamique, que le plus court chemin pour la musique. Pendant quatre années, il devient l'assistant de Menahem Pressler à Bloomington, aux Etats-Unis. Là, il peut assouvir sa passion pour la musique de chambre, et retrouver aux côtés de Franco Gulli, William Primrose et Janos Starker, dont il devient vite le partenaire privilégié, un esprit inconnu dans les milieux musicaux français, plus prompts aux réunions mondaines et éphémères qu'à l'abnégation qu'exige la musique de chambre. Invité de Marlboro, il rencontre Rudolf Serkin "l'ange Serkin", partage la vie communautaire de ce festival sans équivalent, côtoie les plus grands musiciens de notre temps, les écoute... Mais un pianiste qui ne pratiquerait pas la musique de son temps ne saurait être un digne serviteur de la musique. Aussi Alain Planès, autant par goût que par devoir, joue Stockhausen, Boulez, Dillon, se fond dans l'Ensemble Intercontemporain que dirige Pierre Boulez; et comme Rudolf Serkin, s'était fait le champion de Schoenberg tout en assumant, aux côtés de la famille Busch, le grand héritage classique et romantique, Planès apporte à la musique de son temps les couleurs, la respiration, la culture qui manquent si cruellement à ses "spécialistes".
L'homme n'est pas moins grand que le musicien, en cinquante années de vie commune avec Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Debussy, Janacek..., il s'est forgé un caractère. Planès sait ce qu'il ne veut pas : jouer avec n'importe qui et céder à la tentation de trop jouer. Sa morale d'interprète rejoint ici sa morale d'homme : on ne ment pas. Gare aux montreurs de doigts, aux mondains superficiels, Planès - et tous les fous de musique avec lui - ne les souffre pas : à l'occasion sa malice et son humour peuvent faire des ravages. - Alain Lompech

Steinway Concert Grand



Disc 1

Livre 1

Danseuses de Delphes
Le vent dans la plaine
"Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir"
Les collines d'Anacapri
Des pas sur la neige
Ce qu'a vu le Vent d'Ouest
La fille aux cheveux de lin
La sérénade interrompue
La Cathédrale engloutie
La danse de Puck

Disc 2

Livre 2

Feuilles mortes
La puerta del Vino
"Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses"
"Général Lavine" - excentric -
La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
Les tierces alternées
Feux d'Artifice


"Chocdu Monde de la Musique n°89 :

Malgré leur splendeur, leur séduction sonore, les Préludes sont d'une approche difficile. Ou l'on insiste sur la couleur, l'harmonie (Gieseking, Werner Hass, Lee, Kars, Paraskivesco, Egorov), ou sur l'architecture, la mélodie (Casadesus, Février, Monique Haas, Helffer, Béroff). Mais les uns comme les autres sont trop souvent monotones et manquent de cette ampleur que l'on retrouve dans des synthèses beaucoup plus intuitives et inventives (Cortot, Samson François, Richter, Michelangeli, Arrau). Debussy lui-même avait prévu les extraordinaires contresens que ne manquait pas de susciter une telle pluralité d'aspects : "On ne peut se figurer combien ma musique de piano a été déformée; à un tel point que j'hésite souvent à la reconnaitre" (lettre à Edgar Varèse, 1910).
Avec Planès, la fameuse opposition entre dessin et couleur perd beaucoup de son sens. Son jeu est le plus moderne de tous, celui où l'agencement contrapuntique des registres, des nuances, de la dynamique, des vitesses de déroulement, est le plus pur. Très familier de la musique d'aujourd'hui, le pianiste français semble vivre dans sa chair la réalité physique du piano de Debussy, la netteté de ses structures, son acuité harmonique et rythmique.
Il use d'un style incisif, discontinu dans les sonorités, mais parfaitement continu dans l'intelligence des lignes. Cette linéarité puissante et légère et cette lucidité du trait sont aussi vivantes que charnelles. Elles éclairent en profondeur. La forme est toujours précise, souvent imaginative, tout en restant fidèle à la clarté et à l'intégration de tous les éléments. Elle se double d'une inquiétude très aiguë, presque angoissée.
Si Planès n'atteint pas la densité du son, l'éclat scintillant de Michelangeli dans 
Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest ou dans La Cathédrale engloutie, il laisse transparaître une tension interne stupéfiante dans Des pas sur la neige et dans La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, sommets absolus des deux recueils. Ailleurs (Les sons et les parfums..., La Puerta deI Vino, Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses, Bruyère, Canope), chaque accent, chaque attaque, chaque détail est mis en œuvre avec une rigoureuse conscience de l'architecture à naître. La résonance sensuelle de ces équivalences sonores, symbolistes et non réalistes, que sont les Préludes se développe autrement, sous un angle plus purement dynamique. La vitalité et la souplesse (Voiles, Les Collines d'Anacapri, La Sérénade interrompue, Ondine) sont admirables, décuplées par une articulation qui évoque irrésistiblement le phrasé d'Ansermet, bondissant d'une mesure au début de la suivante et donnant toute son énergie au flux mélodique, en en soulignant la continuité. Deux légers reproches : les tempos de Brouillards et de Feuilles mortes, trop vifs. Il est à peu près impossible ici d'égaler la subtilité, la plénitude et la transformation des nuances de Claudio Arrau. 
La prise de son est d'une clarté, d'une probité exemplaires. Ces interprétations, terriblement intenses et grandioses parfois, semblent tout autant - et fort paradoxalement - déterminées par une aération, une respiration presque intimes, où "le dessin ne s'inquiète que de l'aventure de l'émotion" (Debussy). Rien n'aidera mieux l'auditeur à saisir la vérité des
 Préludes. - Patrick Szersnovicz
Technique : 9/10. Très belle prise de son.

"Diapason d'Orde Diapason-Harmonie n°317 :

Une remarque préliminaire s'impose : cet enregistrement a été réalisé en utilisant l'édition critique des Préludes publiée sous la direction de François Lesure d'après les manuscrits et les corrections de Claude Debussy. Etant donné l'extrême précision que l'auteur de Pelléas et Mélisande apportait à la rédaction de ses partitions, rien ne lui paraissant secondaire lorsqu'il s'agissait de fixer son rêve, on voit combien il est important de posséder un enregistrement du texte authentique des Préludes.
La précision est également la qualité majeure d'Alain Planès, pianiste rompu aux disciplines de la musique de chambre et familier de la musique contemporaine. Cette précision lui permet de jouer d'un éventail de nuances d'une rare richesse et de distinguer avec une rare subtilité les plans sonores qui sont une des composantes de l'écriture pianistique de Debussy.
A cet égard, son interprétation du sixième 
Prélude du Livre I, Des pas sur la neige, est exemplaire. Alain Planès ne recherche jamais l'effet, ni le pittoresque, toutefois sa conception n'est nullement austère. L'humour de Minstrels et de l'Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. n'est pas esquivé. Quant aux Collines d’Anacapri, la lumière sensuelle qui les inonde confirme l'accord de la précision et de la volupté sonore chez un interprète qui, s'attachant au texte dans toutes ses implications, en fait surgir la vérité avec une admirable honnêteté. L'authenticité du texte des Préludes trouve ainsi, chez Alain Planès, le miroir le plus fidèle. - Jean Roy
Technique : 8/10. Equilibre tonal : léger manque d’aigu. Image stéréo : superbe, très réaliste. Définition : précise. Pureté sonore : excellente.

"Référencede Compact n°12 :

Le disque que voici est un événement d'importance, car il nous offre la possibilité de découvrir la "nouvelle" partition, récemment éditée sans doute authentique - donc la plus fidèle à la pensée de l'auteur- des deux livres des 
Préludes de Claude Debussy. Le travail de défrichage, entrepris sous la direction de François Lesure, de l'œuvre entière de "Claude de France" touche ainsi à sa fin. S'il fut un compositeur d'une extrême exigence quant à la précision et à la fidélité à la chose écrite, c'est bien Debussy ce qui suffit à démontrer l'aspect indispensable de ce magnifique coffret.

Mais ce n'est pas tout. Alain Planès - grand passionné de la musique de son temps (il est membre de l'Ensemble lntercontemporain) - est l'un des rares musiciens capables de satisfaire aux souhaits du compositeur. La précision qui caractérise ici son jeu nous permet de goûter l'infini des nuances et d'apprécier pleinement les différents plans sonores dont la richesse et les subtilités sont l'une des caractéristiques les plus marquantes de l'écriture de Debussy. Souvent victimes de contresens, les Préludes sont des pièces difficiles à mettre en place; nombre de pianistes s'y sont brûlés les doigts. Alain Planès ne cherche jamais l'effet gratuit, son jeu est nullement austère, maniant l'humour quand il le faut. Mais-ce qui n'est pas le moins important- son interprétation est très sensuelle, voir charnelle et parfois, voluptueuse.
Bien sûr, les anciennes références sont toujours d'actualité. Mais la justesse de ton, la fidélité au texte et la précision du jeu du pianiste français Alain Planès sont d'une actualité telle que je tiens à conseiller chaudement au fidèle lecteur de Compact - et aux autres - de se procurer au plus vite ce coffret qui ne fera qu'enjoliver sa "compactothèque", car il possédera ainsi les Préludes de Debussy dans leur absolue vérité. ( à noter aussi que ce coffret est proposé à un prix promotionnel par l'éditeur).
 - Bruno Serrou
Conclusion, sans rien ôter aux immenses réussites déjà connues, une magnifique version.

"Victoires de la Musique 1986" Best recording of French classical music
Sélected by "La Discothèque Idéale" de Flammarion/Compact
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