This recording, the third of a series of five discs issued by the British Nimbus label in 1998, features the two books of preludes, totaling two dozen pieces, created by the great French composer in 1909-10 and 1912-13.
Although inspired generally, it is said, by the exceptional series of 24 preludes by Frederic Chopin, these works don't bear much resemblance structurally to those classic piano works, which were progressions in key signatures. Rather, Debussy was motivated by a variety of source material, from a statue in the Louvre museum to a line from poet Charles Baudelaire to a label from a bottle of Italian wine to a reminiscence of days spent by Debussy in Eastbourne, England.
The composer did not take kindly to being labeled "impressionistic" in his style of writing, with the liners by Roy Howat noting that Debussy was interesting in "'something different'—in a sense, realities" though these could be seen as part of a mystery, a natural splendor, a spiritual grandeur that reflects in the emotive, dynamic and shifting elements of his music, in which it is easy to see why "imbeciles" (as he called them) would apply the label "impressionistic" rather than "realistic."
Notably, the composer wrote in 1911, between the production of the two prelude books, that "the noise of the dea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird; all leave impressions [bold added for emphasis] on us." Howat suggests that Debussy's fascination with musically reflecting environmental aspects was a reality for him, because of an alienation from "an everyday world with which he never quite came to terms." This, in fact, is not a surprising judgment, given the position of artists of all types, who often develop a "reality" that seems fantastic to others.
In any case, these two dozen pieces do show a range of atmospheres and stylistic variation that show that Debussy was both reflecting tradition while working with a modern palette of sounds and concepts, with unusual scales and the use of chromatic, rather than tonal, elements employing new chordal approaches in his music. The preludes bring out contemplation, excitement, mystery, playfulness, experimentation, and many other feelings and ideas in a way that is simply unique to the composer.
During the time he was working on the first book of preludes, Debussy learned he had rectal cancer and, as his condition worsened, he underwent an early form of colostomy surgery. The disease progressed, though, and the composer died of it in Spring 1918. He was buried in Paris amidst a furious round of bombing by the Germans as the First World War ground to a close. This aspect lends, perhaps, a further interesting meaning to the debate about musical "reality" as opposed to "impressionism." Whatever labels are applied to Debussy's music, his unerring instinct for new ways of creative expression and experimentalism are noteworthy throughout his career and the preludes exemplify this.
Martin Jones, a celebrated British pianist whose work for Nimbus includes recordings of all the Felix Mendelssohn piano pieces and those of Spanish composers like Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz, as well as Johannes Brahms, Percy Grainger and Carl Czerny, among others, plays beautifully and sensitively.