Top Ear

Aimard’s so-so Debussy Preludes

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Jeremy Lee writes

This is, if I am not mistaken, Aimard’s first Debussy disc for Deutsche Grammophon.  It was issued to celebrate Debussy’s 150th birthday in 2012 and therefore given much publicity, though why they would not choose to reissue the classic Zimerman and Michelangeli versions instead (especially when the Zimerman set’s price is always sky-high and the Michelangeli set is split on two separate discs!) is anyone’s guess.

At any rate, Aimard’s Debussy Preludes, as with most of what he does, is technically excellent.  You won’t hear the stupendous runs in the West Wind or Fireworks preludes played more nonchalantly, or the chords in the Cathedral prelude more beautifully layered.  The etude-like thirds prelude in Book II benefits from some lovely clarity by the sparing use of pedal and an absolutely even touch.  But what is possibly the most appreciable thing is that no matter how thick the textures might sometimes get, Aimard never fails to let all the layers be heard clearly and distinctly.  It’s somewhat like an X-ray of the score à-la-Boulez.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of thick textures in the Preludes.  Instead, they thrive with dreamy yet dazzling color, and here Aimard is at his weakest.  The aforementioned Cathedral prelude sounds perpetually monochrome, as does the thirds prelude.  The hallucinating, hypnotic Brouillards is tossed off at an almost thoughtless speed, robbing it entirely of its sense of mystery.  The beautiful melodies in La Fille aux cheveux de lin and its Book II “counterpart” Bruyères are played rather indifferently, while the jazz-influenced Minstrels and General Lavine lack humour and contrast.  In fact, Aimard’s playing of most of the preludes have an uneasy sense of pre-calculatedness, an unyieldingness of rhythmic exactitude that fails to convince, reducing as it were the “pleasures of rhythmic ambiguity”, as Bernstein may have liked to call it, and he offers no special interpretative insights that might make a listener think “yes, why doesn’t anyone else do that?”.

And finally, the sonics are pretty awful, unfocused in the middle registers, tubby in the bass and totally bereft of sparkle at high frequencies, though this may be due more to Aimard’s own piano as used in the recording.  The first time I heard the disc, I thought my speakers were kaput.

In sum, we have here a technically proficient, musically chilly set of Debussy Preludes that surely isn’t terrible—I imagine it would appeal to listeners sick of “boneless” Debussy playing as is the general trend nowadays—but not terribly excellent either, and more specifically, it’s redundant.  It conveniently fits onto one disc, though for that matter you might as well get Pascal Roge’s set on Onyx, with truer sound and much more imaginative and sensitive playing, or if you’re not bothered by mono sonics, Gieseking’s one on EMI.  Otherwise, if cost is no object, you should help yourselves with Zimerman and Michelangeli’s sets.  And would someone please write to DG demanding to reissue them.  We shall all be very grateful.


  • Album name:  Debussy:  Préludes Books 1 & 2
  • Performers:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
  • Label:  DG 477 9982
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  79:46

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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