Maurizio Pollini - Debussy: Préludes

Legendary pianist Maurizio Pollini celebrates Debussy’s centenary year with Deutsche Grammophon album of Préludes II and En blanc et noir, the latter recorded in duo with his son.

Twenty years ago, Maurizio Pollini recorded the first book of Debussy’s Préludes, investing years of experience into its dozen pieces. “With Pollini,” noted Classics Today, “the Préludes sound ahead of their time.” In his latest album for Deutsche Grammophon the great Italian pianist explores the second book of Préludes. Scheduled for international release on 16 February 2018, Préludes II is set to stand among the most significant tributes to Debussy a century after his death. The new release also marks the pianist’s recording debut with his son, Daniele Pollini, who joins him for a performance of En blanc et noir for two pianos.

Maurizio Pollini recorded Preludes I for Deutsche Grammophon in 1998, his passion for Debussy having developed in the 1980s, the natural outcome of his intellectual curiosity and feeling for the piano’s infinite range of tonal colours and textures. It also flowed from his lifelong experience of performing Chopin, whose music Debussy worshipped and, in later years, turned to for inspiration.

In an interview with BBC Radio 3, first broadcast in February 2017 to celebrate his 75th birthday, Pollini declared that he is unable to live without music. “Every day [it] is an enormous [piece of] luck that I can sit at the piano and practise,” he observed, “because I have a relationship with wonderful pieces of music. This is something absolutely special. I play only pieces that I would be happy to play in every moment of my life.”

Debussy’s Préludes clearly count among those life-enhancing works. Pollini programmed the complete second book in company with music by Chopin for a series of recitals throughout 2016 and 2017, including performances in Munich, Tokyo, Milan, Cologne, London, Berlin, Paris and Vienna, and at the Lucerne and Salzburg festivals. “A magical set delivered with 360-degree vision,” noted the Evening Standard following his recital at London’s Royal Festival Hall last February. “Pollini’s Debussy has both poetry and muscle.” His recording of the second book will be released worldwide by DG on 16 February 2018.

Debussy, himself a fine pianist and visionary interpreter of Chopin’s music, began work on his second book of Préludes in late 1910 and the twelve-piece collection was published in early 1913. It contains some of the most extraordinary of his mature works, notable for their radically innovative piano writing and for the new keyboard soundworlds they reveal. From the tranquillity of Feuilles mortes to the explosive virtuosity of Feux d’artifice, via the watery evocations of Ondine and the humour of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C., the variety and originality of these pieces never cease to amaze.

Unlike Chopin’s cycle of two dozen Preludes Op.28, Debussy’s book forms a sequence of musical impressions unrelated by key, and yet it evokes the infinite subtleties of the older composer’s piano writing. “Debussy had a great admiration for Chopin,” notes Pollini. “Both Debussy and Ravel were true followers of Chopin. They liked his music very much; they understood his greatness.”

Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Debussy experienced a prolonged creative block. He rediscovered his desire to compose after his friend and publisher Jacques Durand commissioned him to edit Chopin’s piano works, a project prompted by the exclusion of German editions from the French marketplace. “Chopin invigorated Debussy,” observed Marcel Dietschy in his biography of Debussy, “causing him to move the war back from the foreground of his concerns, and to summon up the slightly melancholy but consoling countenance of Music.”

En blanc et noir, composed in the summer of 1915, marked his return to composition and indeed the beginning of a new surge of creative activity in his final years. The three-movement work, inspired by the dark-hued “caprices” of Goya, captures the intense atmosphere of wartime France, rocked by recent news of the Germans’ first use of chlorine gas as a frontline weapon and the sinking of the Lusitania. Its middle movement, dedicated to a relative of Durand’s recently killed in action, pitches the Lutheran choral Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott against a version of the Marseillaise to raise doubts about the wisdom of national conflict.

Pollini is joined for En blanc et noir by his son, pianist, conductor and composer Daniele Pollini, here making his debut on Deutsche Grammophon. It is also the first time father and son have recorded together. “It was a great joy of course for me to record En blanc et noir with my son,” comments Maurizio Pollini. “We both took enormous pleasure in exploring the rich layers of colour and association that are woven into its three movements. Debussy, an outstanding pianist, understood that there are no limits to the possibilities of sound and expression on the piano – as illustrated to perfection in this, one of his late masterpieces.”