Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Debussy: Preludes for Piano, Disc 1

It's cheating to use the word impressionist when describing Debussy's music, and yet it's a simple fact that Debussy's piano compositions sound just as impressionistic as his orchestral compositions. Today's Preludes are stunning and vivid--they have splashes of wild color, strange chords, strange melodies and weirdly unorthodox techniques.

This guy is a true rule-breaker, no matter what instrument he works with.
Krystian Zimerman, piano

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Claude Debussy: Préludes

Deutsche Grammophon, 1994 [2 CDs]

Until today, I had only experienced Debussy's La Mer and Images, both of which are orchestral works which are at times is so vivid that you can literally almost see the music (the first movement of La Mer is an excellent example of this).

The Preludes for piano are equally vivid, but I'd argue that at times Debussy's special effects and musical gadgets interfere with the music itself. I'll cite some examples in the listener notes.

One final word: don't buy this 2-CD recording expecting to hear Schumann- or Chopin-style piano music. Be ready for something wildly different.

Listener Notes for Debussy's Preludes (Disc 1):
1) Prelude 1, Danseuses de Delphes: At the 1:44 and 1:48 marks, you'll hear dissonant chords that sound almost like mistakes (they're not). Man, this ain't Chopin. This music is much more challenging. Also, notice in this track how pianist Krystian Zimerman breathes so loudly that you can clearly hear it over the music. He's no doubt lost himself in his passion for the music.

2) Prelude 2, Voiles: One word. Creeeeeeepy.

3) Prelude 3, Le vent dans la plaine, is a particularly impressionist(ic?) sounding work.

4) Prelude 5, Les collines d'Anacapri: Here's an excellent example of Debussy using musical gadgets and special effects to excess. All of the excited zings!, swoops! and pings! sound interesting, but they aren't music.

5) Likewise, Prelude 7, Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest, is another effect-laden piece that quite frankly doesn't sound musical at all. It's full of banging chords and too much use of both extreme ends of the keyboard. Rumble-rumble, ping! ping!

6) But then Prelude 8, La fille aux cheveux de lin, shows how Debussy, when he doesn't try to overstuff his compositions with special effects, can write stunningly beautiful music.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Schumann: Second Symphony

I stood by the body of my passionately loved husband, and was calm. All my feelings were absorbed in thankfulness to God that he was at last set free, and as I kneeled by his bed I was filled with awe. It was as if his holy spirit was hovering over me--Ah! If only he had taken me with him.
--Clara Schumann, after the death of her husband Robert Schumann

We return to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra's exceptional recording of Schumann's Four Symphonies to hear his Symphony #2.
George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture

CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996

When I sat down to listen to Schumann's Second Symphony, I assumed it would sound as Mozart-like as his First Symphony. I couldn't have been more wrong: these two symphonies sound strikingly different.

Listener Notes for Schumann's Symphony #2:
1) You can tell right away that this symphony is far more Romantic in style. If Schumann wrote his First Symphony in a style following Mozart, he wrote his Second following Beethoven.

2) Excellent examples of classic Romantic style: the passage beginning at 1:58 in the first movement; also the passage at 2:46 in the first movement.

3) The closing major chords of the first movement could be cribbed right out of a Beethoven symphony!

4) At 1:36 in the second movement, there's a tempo change that the Cleveland Orchestra doesn't get quite right.

5) The second movement is one of the more unusual scherzos I've ever heard. Quite frankly, it's odd enough that the second movement is a scherzo in the first place. And good lord, you sure wouldn't be able to dance to it. But wow, does it ever have an exciting ending!

6) The third movement is widely considered one of the most beautiful orchestral works Schumann ever wrote. I can't say I disagree. And nice to hear a beautifully played, in-tune clarinet solo at 2:59-3:10 (it repeats at 7:40).

7) I found the fourth movement to be somewhat of an anticlimax. It felt like the first movement had a much more rousing (and conclusive) ending.

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