Debussy: Préludes pour piano

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The two books of Préludes by Claude Debussy (1862 -1918) are undoubtedly among the most important and popular piano compositions of the early twentieth century, and have exercised a truly seminal influence on the piano music of subsequent generations.

Published in 1910 and 1913 respectively, each book contains 12 pieces, each one of them an invitation to another unique, fully imagined world. In many ways a summation of Debussy’s extraordinarily vivid piano writing, these miniatures are self-contained miracles of sonority, impressionistic and colourific effect; they are equally a lesson in taut compositional clarity and structural genius.

Originally published by Durand, the Préludes are now available in various combinations and editions from most of the major publishing houses, including Henle Verlag, Wiener Urtext, Edition Peters, Schirmer, Alfred and Dover.

In this review I am looking at the new urtext edition by Thomas Kabisch, published by Bärenreiter in two volumes; both volumes are exemplary in their scholarship, also including helpful editorial fingering supplied by the pianist Martin Widmaier.

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Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne: French Duets

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When global concert and recording artists Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne teamed up a couple of years ago to record an album of piano duo music by Schubert, it seemed they might become the new dream team in this repertoire. Now they are back with a second helping.

French Duets delivers exactly what it says on the tin, with music by Fauré, Poulenc, Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel: some of the brightest gems in the piano duo treasury. And to my taste at least, this recording surpasses the last, becoming an immediate favourite.

No surprise, then, that French Duets is my May 2021 Recording of the Month

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Víkingur Ólafsson: Debussy meets Rameau

photography: Ari Magg

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For a second month in a row, my piano recording of the month choice comes from the fingers of a young player whose playing I did not immediately warm to, but who has more recently completely won me over.

Víkingur Ólafsson’s DG debut recording focused on the music of Philip Glass, while for his award-winning follow-up he turned to Bach, mixing the composer’s originals with transcriptions and various reworkings. The Icelandic pianist proved his mettle with an ultra-crystalline approach and technique that dazzled critics and music-lovers alike; but it left me just a little cold.

Ólafsson’s latest offering, bringing together a joyous collection of pieces by the French baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) interspersed and offset with an eclectic set of beloved and lesser-known pieces by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), is the clincher.

A disc replete with musical marvels, Ólafsson’s album of French keyboard wizardry is revelatory in its insights and deserves the highest plaudits…

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Alice Sara Ott: Nightfall

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Of the many wonderful young pianists who have arrived on the international performing circuit in recent years, Alice Sara Ott impresses me as one of the more honest to her own artistic intentions, and authentic in her delivery.

Her several recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have consistently revealed Ott as an intelligent pianist, eschewing glitz for its own sake, ready and willing to plough her own musical furrow, staying true to her vision and – importantly – to the intentions and spirit of the composers whose music she identifies with.

Commenting on her latest release, Nightfall, the now-30-year-old German pianist writes:

“It’s a very personal album in which I recall many moments of light and brightness, but also moments of darkness and doubt. One month before I entered the recording studio – I was in the midst of the bleak world of Gaspard de la nuit – my father suffered a heart attack that he barely survived. Despite a fortunate outcome, these were terrifying hours and days in which I realised how close life and death are intertwined. But there can be no light without darkness, and no hope without fear. And sometimes the borders blur – as in Nightfall.”

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Debussy: Images & Pour le piano

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As many will know, pianists and classical music lovers are this year marking the centenary of Debussy’s death in 1918.

In a previous post I addressed the frequently asked question, “where to start?” exploring his piano works, suggesting Bärenreiter Edition’s Easy Pieces and Dances collection and their excellent urtext edition of the Preludes livre 1 as great entry points.

In this post I will look at a couple of Bärenreiter’s other Debussy editions – the two volumes of Images, but first Pour le piano. These are virtuoso concert works which qualify for the diploma and professional tag in terms of difficulty.

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Debussy: Where to Start?

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It’s all about Claude Debussy for classical music lovers and pianists in 2018, as we mark the centenary of his death in 1918. And rightly so, because few composers have made such a seminal contribution to the pianist’s literature, or composed music which explores such a range of colour, tonal possibility and timbre from the instrument.

For the developing pianist, the question often arises – where to start exploring Debussy’s rich, varied and substantial body of piano music? The good news is that, while Debussy never wrote anything simple, his oeuvre does offer up plenty of music that suits pianists of early advanced, around Grade 5-8 level.

In a recent editorial for the BBC Music Magazine, Oliver Condy fondly remembers his teenage efforts playing Debussy’s music at the piano:

“Playing his music was always so much fun – serious music that didn’t seem at all serious, jazz that our music teachers would instantly sanction. And Debussy’s innate skill of writing for the piano meant that everything fell nicely under the fingers. Maximum effect, minimum effort. Of course, I’m not talking about the harder pieces – oh no. But in general, I’ll always see Debussy as one of the most gracious of composers who understands that to be appreciated, it helps if performers don’t hate you from the start.”

There are several excellent collections of Debussy’s piano music aimed at players at this “early advanced” level, but in this review I am going to focus on the Debussy: Easy Piano Pieces and Dances collection published by Bärenreiter…

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