Release date: 24 November 2023
A “Prelude”, if one is serious about the meaning of the words, should be something preceding something else – like a Fugue, for instance. But Debussy’s Preludes precede nothing, and they are self-standing pieces. A title, normally, is something found on the “title-page”, i.e. the frontispiece, of a work, or as the first line of a chapter or article. But the titles of Debussy’s Preludes are found at the end of each piece. They are not in bold type, but in a subdued normal font; and they are between parentheses, and preceded by an ellipsis (…).
These seeming inconsistencies are, of course, deliberate choices by the composer. Not only was Debussy one of the greatest composers of all times, but he was also a very cultivated man, with a brilliant intelligence, well-read and capable of writing wittily and engagingly. He was therefore able to provide his works with intriguing titles, which are almost micro-poems in themselves. They can evoke a world in a few words, in a manner not unlike that of Japanese poetry.
In this, Debussy is perhaps more of a Symbolist than of an Impressionist. Indeed, his aesthetic perspective can be seen as being at the crossroads of these two artistic movements, belonging in neither, but paying homage to both. The “Impressionist” strain of his output is more evident in the works predating the Préludes, and would become increasingly negligible as Debussy’s aesthetics would turn, in later years, toward a dryer perspective. The “Symbolist” element is still rather pronounced in the Préludes, but is far from an umbrella title capable of explaining and demonstrating all elements of these pieces.
In being isolated pieces, which are “preludes” to nothing, Debussy’s Preludes are not alone in the musical repertoire. Their most direct antecedent is represented by Frédéric Chopin’s 24 Préludes: these were inspired by Bach, and therefore Debussy’s can be seen as only indirectly related to the Well-Tempered Clavier. Certainly, however, neither Bach’s nor Chopin’s Preludes had individual titles, even though later musicians frequently sought to label them in a poetically allusive fashion (such is the case, for example, with Chopin’s Raindrop).
The selection of twelve Preludes recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album draws liberally and equally from both series of Preludes composed by Debussy. Book One, with twelve Preludes, was written between 1909 and 1910 and immediately published by Durand. Debussy’s careful indication of the completion date for each piece allows us to establish their chronology with certainty. However, this crystal-clear simplicity may be deceiving, since at least some of the pieces were written or conceived at a much earlier date.
The complete project, however, was probably conceived by Debussy under the impression of having served for some days as a jury member during a piano competition organized by the Conservatoire of Paris. Debussy came out of that experience with mixed feelings; he was impressed by a young Brazilian pianist whose eyes – as Debussy wrote to his friend André Caplet – were “intoxicated by music”, but he found the endless line of pianists rather unnerving.
The first piece recorded here is found as no. 5 of Book One, and it follows a piece which is its perfect antagonist. No. 4, in fact, derives its title from a line in a poem by Baudelaire: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. In this Prelude, Debussy manages to create a truly inebriating musical atmosphere, where complex harmonies intertwine, leading the listener to lose all reference points, as if under the effect of some exotic musical drug. The same happens with rhythm, thanks to Debussy’s shrewd use of irregular bars. The overall impression is that of a morbid yet seductive situation, languid and exciting at the same time. This foggy and ambiguous atmosphere is completely dissolved by the frankly shining and brilliantly coloured Les collines d’Anacapri, recorded here. A multi-layered writing, with few tonal ambiguities, seems to reconstruct a festive context in the sunny landscape of Southern Italy; fragments from folk tunes are interspersed under and over an enthralling tarantella rhythm, punctuated by sounds of clear cymbals.
If the contrast Les sons / Les collines is not audible here, a similar juxtaposition is found after this first track of the CD. In Debussy’s original ordering, No. 6 is Des pas sur la neige, found here as track no. 11 (which provides, in turn, a striking contrast). Here, we find Bruyères from Book Two: it is a piece reminiscent of Debussy’s earlier style, where the loneliness of an isolated melodic line (perhaps alluding to a lonely shepherd’s flute tune) finds, at times, a seductive but sober harmonization.
With La Puerta del vino we abandon the silent loneliness of the moorland and of its boundless landscapes to reach a completely different setting. Instead of loneliness, we find a crowd; instead of wind and opaque colours, the bright shades of Mediterranean culture. Instead of the rhythmic uncertainty of a solitary tune, played without accompaniment, we find an obsessive and enthralling Habanera rhythm. Debussy was deeply seduced by musical exoticism; one of the landmark experiences of his musical life was the Parisian Expo where he could hear a Javanese gamelan and experience the scales, tunings and sounds of a different world. Spain is much closer to France than Bali, but nevertheless it was felt as a deeply exotic place by Debussy. Numerous pieces, for piano and for orchestra, coming from his pen, depict imaginatively the landscapes and soundscapes of Spain: in this case, the inspiration came to the composer probably from a postcard depicting Granada’s Puerta del vino, at the Alhambra. Over the Habanera rhythm, a melodic line with improvisational qualities evokes the Andalusian cante jondo.
Another kind of exoticism is found in Danseuses de Delphes, the piece opening Book One in the original ordering. Here, the exoticism is both geographical (Greece) and historical, since the suggestion came to Debussy from an ancient Greek sculpture portraying three priestesses/dancers, dedicated to the cult of Apollon and therefore also prophetesses. Here too Debussy realizes a multilayered polyphony, punctuated by the sound of sistra and evoking the slow, composed and elegant moves of these ancient dancers.
A completely different portrait is that sketched in Général Lavine – Eccentric, marked by the composer himself as Dans le style et le mouvement d’un Cake-walk. This piece, found as no. 6 of Book Two, is a concentration of bright colours and sounds (a third of the forte and fortissimo indications found in the entire collection coalesce here!). Edward La Vine, an American, had created the bizarre character of General Lavine, “the man who remained a soldier for his entire life”; Debussy portrays this parody of military life, with influences from the musical ancestors of jazz.
The bombastic attitude of this caricature is countered by the watery elegance of Ondine. The fairy inhabitants of the rivers had seduced many musicians before Debussy, and water was one of the natural elements he most delighted in portraying. Just as liquids take the shape of their container, so does this music eschew clear-cut harmonies and progressions, and beautifully seek a smooth flowing through an extremely refined harmonization.
Spain comes to the fore once more with La sérénade interrompue, a piece where Debussy’s irony is at its zenith once more. The piano evokes guitar sounds, portraying a guitarist who tunes his instrument and tentatively seeks how to begin his serenade. A series of interruptions, however, prevent him constantly from achieving his goal: cries from afar, a few notes of a foreign music (which is actually a self-quotation from Ibéria), sounds from the street… and the wretched lover’s song is doomed to failure.
Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest is one of the most spectacular and technically demanding pieces in the whole set. Taking inspiration from a fairy-tale by Hans-Christian Andersen (Le Jardin du paradis), this piece depicts the raging fury of the Ocean wind and all the people, situations and landscapes it sees from its vantage-point. Gusts upon gusts build up powerful climaxes where dissonances – at times very harsh – abound.
By way of contrast, Canope is as still as is its object, a canopic jar: the urn preserving the remains of somebody who died millennia ago is a profound, but also faded memento mori, whose enigmatic questioning is intensified by the historical/geographic exoticism of ancient Egypt.
Life and death, stillness and liveliness: Minstrels, the closing piece of Book One, portrays the fantasy and joyful recklessness of a troupe of American “minstrels”, whose music – once more predating jazz and anticipating it – corresponds to their brilliant performances where acrobatics, clowneries and music intermingle.
A contrast once more: with Des pas sur la neige we reach minimalism in music. As Debussy puts it, the recurring rhythm – a microscopic melodic cell built on intervals of second – has the sound value of “a sad and icy landscape”. Debussy masterly manages to create a whole piece with an extreme paucity of means, conveying in an unforgettable fashion the feeling of loneliness, desolation and lifelessness of a uniformly white and blank landscape.
Feux d’artifice maintains what it promises: a dazzling spectacle of fireworks, where piano technique is challenging and musical effect abound, so as to leave the listener impressed and in awe just as after an evening of pyrotechnic shows.
Debussy’s Deux Arabesques follow: two extremely well-known pieces (particularly the first), written when Debussy was just 20, which seem to embody the poetics of the young musician. Here “arabesque” stands for figurations of dancing, but also for that “music without a meaning outside itself” (as had been theorized by German musicologists). Influences and suggestions from different art forms – from Hokusai to Mallarmé, but without disregarding Robert Schumann’s famous Arabeske op. 18 – create this beautiful, delicate diptych where poetry and irony dovetail.
Nocturne alludes to Chopin, once more, and to his splendid Nocturnes; this piece, published within an issue of Figaro musical in 1892, is still somewhat late-Romantic, even though Debussy’s own, personal language is already clearly developing.
Together, the pieces recorded here constitute a beautiful itinerary from some of the earliest to some of the latest works written by Debussy for his beloved instrument, the piano.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Inês Filipe, a Portuguese pianist from Aveiro, has won numerous prizes in National and International piano competitions such as the Frederico de Freitas Interpretation Prize, Premium Paços, CMACG Piano Competitions, Elisa Pedroso, International Competition of the Fundão, and the prestigious “Antena2 Award” of the XVII SIPO International Piano Festival, under the eye of a renowned panel of judges, that was attended by Boris Berman, Luiz de Moura Castro, Josep Colom and Paul Badura-skoda.
She performs regularly in recitals as a soloist, already featuring performances in numerous countries such as Spain, England, France, Italy, Thailand, Malasia, Belgium, Germany, Panama and Costa Rica. In Portugal Inês Filipe performed at SIPO Internacional Piano Festival - in a recital broadcast live on “Antena2” (National Portuguese Radio); PianoPorto Festival; National Museum of Music-Lisbon; Festivais de Outono; Cycle "Hands on Piano"; Dias da Música em Belém (CCB); Casa da Música- Porto; Cycle of Concerts Coimbra; FIMM; among others. She debuted as a soloist with the Filarmonia das Beiras Orchestra in 2018, performing the Ravel concert in G under the direction of maestro Ernest Schelle. Inês Filipe is a member of several chamber music projects and also collaborates with the production company Musicamera Produções.
She presents a great versatility in the choice and execution of pianistic repertoire, including works in concert ranging from Bach to contemporary music. Her interest in modern and contemporary Portuguese music has played an active role in the dissemination of the same, already featuring several premieres of works by Portuguese composers.
Throughout her artistic career she has deepened her knowledge of piano in masterclasses with the most renowned pianists such as Paul Badura-Skoda, Josep Colom, Constantin Sandu, Luiz de Moura Castro, Aquilles Delle Vigne, Jaime Mota, Paulo Oliveira, Luís Pipa, Fernando Rossano, Constantin Ionescu-Vovu, Boris Berman, among others.
Attended the Conservatory of Music of Aveiro, in the class of Professor Patrícia Sousa. At the same time to the musical studies she attended the Bachelor in Civil Engineering at University of Aveiro, finishing this degree in 2014. Graduated in Piano performance from Stanislao Giacomantonio Conservatory in Italy, Conservatori Superior Del Liceu in Barcelona and from the University of Aveiro, having studied with Rodolfo Rubino, Josep Colom and Fausto Neves. Inês Filipe is currently taking part of Piano Pedagogy Pos-Graduation Programme at Minho University with the pianist and pedagogue Luís Pipa.
Claude Debussy: (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. One of the most important musicians of his time, his harmonic innovations had a profound influence on generations of composers. He made a decisive move away from Wagnerism in his only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and in his works for piano and for orchestra he created new genres and revealed a range of timbre and colour which indicated a highly original musical aesthetic.