June 07, 2018


Debussy: Préludes for Piano, Books I and II (complete). Terry Lynn Hudson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95 (2 CDs).

Debussy: Suite Bergamasque; Ballade; Pour le Piano; Arabesque No. 1; Images, Books I and II. Eliane Rodrigues, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Mother: A Musical Tribute. Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson, pianos. SWR Music. $18.99.

     Although there is no musical reason to perform all 24 of Debussy’s Préludes for Piano as a set – unlike similar works by Bach and Chopin, Debussy’s do not follow a specific tonal sequence – the full grouping is a tour de force for pianists and produces an intriguingly involving effect on listeners who hear the works from start to finish, or at least listen to Book I straight through and subsequently to all of Book II. The connections among these works are subtle rather than structurally dictated – for example, the works in the first book, from 1910, are more directly impressionistic, while those in the second, from 1913, delve more deeply into strictly musical issues of their time, such as dissonances and tonal ambiguity. Terry Lynn Hudson’s exemplary reading of both books of Préludes, a two-CD set from MSR Classics that is being sold for the price of a single disc, is an excellent introduction to the music for anyone unfamiliar with it – and stands up very well against other recordings, for those who know the material already. Hudson is especially adept at gently evoking Debussy’s scenes of quietude and sadness, notably in Brouillards (“Mists,” which opens the second book) and La cathédrale engloutie (”The Sunken Cathedral,” tenth in the first book). Debussy’s piano music, generally speaking, is subtle and understated, and that is particularly true of these two pieces and several others in the Préludes. And this is precisely where Hudson excels. She does not over-sentimentalize these pieces and, indeed, does not over-interpret the ones that benefit from direct and straightforward presentation, such as La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with Flaxen Hair,” the eighth piece in the first book). If there is a single word that seems to describe both books of Préludes, it would be “fluidity” – of expression, or rhythm, of tempo, of coloration, of texture. Hudson is quite sensitive to this characteristic, with the result that her performance imparts a certain overarching connectedness among the works even in the absence of a predetermined relatedness through keys. Hudson also has a keen sense of wit and humor when those are called for, as in Général Lavine – eccentric (the cakewalk-like sixth piece in the second book). By any measure, these are neatly tied-up performances, both of individual pieces as miniatures and as an entire set of 24 little pianistic gems.

     Debussy’s piano music is also handled with style and sensitivity on a new Navona CD featuring Eliane Rodrigues. The contrasts among the six pieces in the two books of Images are particularly effective here. The books of Images date to 1905 and 1907 and are, like the two books of Préludes, somewhat different in focus, the first being more readily accessible and the second denser and more complex both to play and to hear. On the basis of this disc, Rodrigues sees Debussy as a composer whose piano music is filled with contrasts: she brings out the works’ differing moods strongly, again and again. Thus, the four movements of Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) are filled with a mixture of feelings – and yes, the mix specifically appears in the third, longest and most familiar, Clair de lune, which for Rodrigues presents a feeling of being bereft and uncertain in the moonlight, not simply experiencing enjoyment of the beauties of the landscape below the bright orb. All the works here get sensitive, thoughtful treatment, from the earliest, Arabesque No. 1 (1888-1891) to the later Ballade (1890-1903) and Pour le Piano (1896-1903). The CD is a generous length, nearly an hour and a quarter, which explains a decision that is unlikely to please listeners who prefer the CD medium to online music: Rodrigues also offers a lovely, lilting and thoroughly enjoyable version of the Children’s Corner suite, but it is available only online – its 16 minutes would not quite have fit onto the CD with everything already on it. Listeners may decide for themselves whether they would have preferred to have something else omitted and Children’s Corner included on the disc, where it would have been the latest work offered (it dates to 1908). Even without the bonus, though, this is a CD that lovers of Debussy will enjoy, especially insofar as Rodrigues views some of the music, such as Clair de lune, in atypical ways.

     A new SWR Music recording featuring the Anderson & Roe piano duet offers two pianos and two pianists rather than one of each, but that is scarcely to the CD’s benefit, despite the performers’ excellent playing. The reason is that this is one of those “theme” discs and is also a very deliberate crossover recording – and is therefore only for people who accept and enjoy the topic (the disc’s title is “Mother: A Tribute”) and who also are comfortable with the rather weird juxtapositions that the performers offer. Listeners to this (+++) recording should be prepared to hear Dvořák (“Songs My Mother Taught Me”) immediately followed by an excerpt from Queen’s 1975 “A Night at the Opera,” succeeded by Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos, followed by a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” – and so forth. There is Grieg’s “A Mother’s Grief” and then “What a Wonderful World” by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss – the juxtapositions of meaning are as strange here as are those of music. Schubert’s (perhaps inevitable) “Ave Maria” is followed by the Lennon/McCartney “Let It Be,” then the (definitely inevitable) Brahms “Lullaby,” and finally a version of the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly, in which the a cappella singing group Accent cooperates to produce a jazzy recasting of the music that is somewhat at odds with the emotional underpinnings of Puccini’s original. The point of this whole release is to mix genres in such a way as to fulfill the CD’s title, and also create a tribute to the pianists’ own mothers, whose preferences are partly responsible for the choice of works to record. That makes this a nice family project, for sure; and Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson are both fine performers who seem to relish all the material and who handle the works with sensitivity and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the disc is one of very limited appeal, because for listeners to enjoy it, they have to like these specific mother-oriented works in these specific arrangements, presented in this specific way. Only people who are closely in tune with or tuned into the pianists (so to speak) will be likely to appreciate this particular “tribute” CD and come to it as an audience with the same enthusiasm that Anderson and Roe bring to it as performers.

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