These recordings come from a 1998 concert featuring Book I of the Préludes, previously issued on EuroArts and a new recording of Estampes (not that you’d know from the beautifully natural piano sound). The booklet essay informs us that Barenboim, like Boulez, regards Debussy as the founding father of musical modernism – a non-prescriptive composer who could have no successors (except perhaps Ligeti!) Less ‘Impressionist’, more ‘Symbolist’ is how he sees it, and these highly individual performances may give the horrors to those hoping for a dose of musical Monet.
Barenboim can be quixotic, yet he’s keenly attuned to the composer’s sonic experimentation, embracing a desire to disorientate the listener. Yes, he takes liberties with Debussy’s markings, but so did the composer himself on his Welte-Mignon recordings. Barenboim’s Pagodes are neatly balanced, his Soirée Dans Grenade sensual with an unusually massive climax, his Jardins sous la Pluie sway and bend in quite a downpour.
It’s his Préludes that will ruffle most feathers. Not every experiment pays off – the Delphic dancers are a trifle lumpen – but try the volatile sonics of his windy plain, the grace of his flaxen-haired girl, or brave the oozy depths of his sunken cathedral. While others flit prettily over Debussy’s shimmering surfaces, Barenboim drags a willing imagination into vistas unexplored. Thank heavens this Debussy year someone is prepared to give things a good shake up.