Classical CD Reviews

DEBUSSY: 24 Preludes – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records

Craig Sheppard performs the Debussy Preludes as sets of ardent tone poems by a daring explorer into harmonic and color possibilities.

Published on September 1, 2013

DEBUSSY: 24 Preludes – Craig Sheppard, piano – Romeo Records 7297, 79:42 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Compiled from two concerts Craig Sheppard (b. 1947) gave on his own Hamburg Steinway D on 22-23 October 2012 in Seattle’s Meany Theatre, this disc proffers his survey of Debussy’s ground-breaking sets of Preludes, composed 1910-1913. Sheppard alertly fixes his keyboard colors to capture the eclectic and esoteric elements in the Debussy style, its chromatic medievalism, the liberated trill and modal pedal points. Sheppard’s Voiles, for instance, resonates with gongs and pentatonic carillons, a series of misty B-flats that fuse a Turner seascape to the more erotic veils of American danseuse Loie Fuller. The glissandi nod openly to Liszt. With the opening Delphic Dancers, the first two preludes establish the cornerstones of a pagan temple built on water.

The first of the so-called “wind pieces,” Le vent dans la plaine, generates an erotic stasis, what Ralph Ellison calls the urge “to move without moving.”  But the illusion of movement has a palpable breath and earthy pulsation. The seventh prelude, Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest, also a wind piece, takes a more grotesque course, closer to Mussorgsky than to Liszt. If Liszt has an influence here, it might derive from the Dante Sonata. Taken from Baudelaire, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir combines erotic chromatics and a refined plainchant, along with the languor of the French music hall. The B Major Les collines d’Anacapri sparkles with Italian wine and song. That Liszt’s Les cloches de Geneve may serve as a model seems entirely logical, although the parlando element sounds Iberian. The eternal Sphinx of the set, Des pas sur la neige, used to haunt Jean Casadesus as much as it does Sheppard, its hesitations and falling thirds close to late Brahms or early Schoenberg, whosesoever’s angst suits your taste.

The dramatic contrast to the West Wind prelude, La fille aux cheveux de lin, enjoys a beautifully rarified directness, wistful, often diatonic, and passionate. Sheppard makes La serenade interrompue a devilishly contrived guitar piece whose Andalusian syncopes light the way for every Spanish composer who succeeds Debussy. The grandest of the set, La cathedrale engloutie, relishes its octaves in both hands, its fifths and tone clusters, saturated by Sheppard’s subtle legato amidst the pealing bells and surging ocean waves. The first set of preludes ends with two lusty and whimsical “etudes” in rhythmic flexibility, La danse de Puck and Minstrels. Alternately gossamer and dervish-like, they combine melodic invention and rhythmic asymmetry with wrist articulation on a bravura level, Shakespeare and Parisian dance-hall celebrated, respectively.

Debussy returns to C Major for the first of his 1913 Preludes, Brouillards, which moves just a hair to D-flat. The thick fog impedes harmonic motion, but the internal rhythm shifts amidst a delicate fabric of colors, especially some brute object on which the middle section stumbles. The last chords of the fog-piece segue into the Feuilles mortes, a wasteland vision from Chirico, whose “city” landscapes celebrate an artistic world devoid of Nature.  A real Spanish tour de force,  La Puerta del Vino pours the gypsy wine in the course of sensuous Andausian habanera strummed by guitars and intoned by a mezzo’s deep song. Sheppard devotes some of his most alluring colors to Debussy’s Peter Pan moment, Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses. Diaphanous glissandi and sterling chordal progressions mix in enchanted kaleidoscope for a sound that belies the Steinway’s repute for hard tone. The land of Arcadian heather, Bruyeres, might claim Normandy as its venue, although the melodic line more than once shimmers with “flaxen hair.”

Charlie Chaplin’s great predecessor, Edward Lavine, receives homage in General Lavine – Eccentric, in the form of a music-hall cakewalk whose nods to Stephen Foster and vaudeville pratfalls Sheppard executes with athletic aplomb. A true foil to the earthiness of Lavine, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune projects an Eastern sensibility, chromatic, exotic, and a tad unnerving, like the atmosphere in the Bette Davis classic, The Letter. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Ondine the water sprite inspire Debussy’s water sprite, cast in a rondo format that likes the tritone maneuver of F# – C – F# or its original figuration as C – F# – C, an affirmation of  Nature’s cycle that delineates those Fairies who are such “exquisite dancers.”

The Homage to Dickens via S. Pickwick Esq. combines humor and pomp in D Major, after an eccentric series of accents follows “God Save the Queen.” Sheppard plays the piece with ceremonial dignity that carries a definitive twinkle in the touch. More plainchant informs the elusive Canopes, mummification jars that become emblematic of past musical formulas here embalmed by mercurial zither effects. A true etude appears in Les tierces alternees, in which alternating double thirds, quite delicate, perform a balletic dance mid-section. Sheppard gives us a preview of his future Debussy complete Etudes as well as a possible excursion intro Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The colossal technique Sheppard exhibits segues naturally into the last of the Preludes, the brilliant Feux d’artifice, with its celebration of Bastille Day. In its stunning bravura, we hear echoes of Reflets dans l’eau, Liszt, and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

Professor Sheppard adds an encore to these live recitals: Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon, another study in static symmetry, whose bell tones emerge as from a mist. The ensuing applause counts a quite realistic, not merely an “impression.”

[Here are some other views of the Debussy Preludes…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco




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