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Born in 1942, the conductor and pianist Barenboim has always been an explainer, as well as performer, of music. This release coincides with a DVD (EuroArts) entitled Daniel Barenboim plays and explains Les Préludes, in case further explications are needed. Prominent on this CD is a quote from the maestro: ‘Debussy’s sources of inspiration were literature and nature’, which, if unobjectionable, is hardly novel or revelatory.

Through a long, abundant recording career, Barenboim has proven an uneven interpreter of Chopin, and one wonders if this precedent is ideal for venturing into the world of Debussy, who learned much from Chopin. There are many caveats about the playing heard here, starting with issues of digital control in ‘Pagodes’, which the composer marked ‘almost without nuance’ (presque sans nuance), a direction which Barenboim disobeys. ‘La soirée dans Grenade’, instead of evoking the strumming of guitars and the colours of Granada, starts with feeble noodling and continues uncertainly before getting louder, if not more insightful.

Barenboim is capable of dramatic effect, as in a Beethovenian ‘Jardins sous la pluie’; even if the idiom sounds wrong. ‘Clair de lune’ is rendered as if by someone with his mind elsewhere. There are many ways to capture the magic of Debussy’s Préludes, but Brucknerian distention is not really one. At times portentous, at others abandoned like a walrus expiring on a beach, Barenboim’s ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ is tendentious and pernickety. ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ has a certain Lisztian propulsion, but tends to sound aggrieved. For all his awareness of the literary and natural sources of Debussy’s art, Barenboim’s ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’ sounds like it is about Liszt, not the composer’s cherished vacation spot in the hills above Capri, Italy. Where are any audible affinities with Debussy?

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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