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An amazing disc on several counts: First, it’s a DVD-A, which we have only seen infrequently lately, and only from AIX and Classic Records. Second, it features all of the Debussy Preludes on a single disc running 87 minutes - Tacet has been releasing their hi-res recordings primarily on SACD, but reserves DVD-A for programs demanding more length than the 80-minute limit of SACDs, and this one is it. Third, instead of two books of a dozen Preludes apiece, there are now a total of 25 Preludes, due to the recent discovery of a 30-bar piece which Debussy composed for his coal dealer during the First World War, which ensured him a coal supply during winter even though it was rationed. The title translates to "Evenings lit up by the glow of coals." Fourth, Tacet has mixed this solo piano performance for their Real Surround Sound playback, as they did previously with one other DVD-A piano recording - Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s a truly unique approach to piano reproduction on disc.
Let’s start with that last bit: I think this time an illustration is appropriate: Debussy created in the Preludes and Etudes for piano an entirely new and unique sound-world unlike anything else. It was similar to the way he revolutionized orchestral sound in works such as La Mer and the Three Nocturnes. Yes, he was composing for the normal concert situation of a grand piano up on the stage and the audience sitting some distance out front. Although he made some fine Welte-Mignon piano rolls himself, standard recording technology was primitive while he was alive.
Since these are such unique piano works, and today we have multichannel hi-res recording, why not employ it in a creative manner to surround the listener with Debussy’s unique sound-world? That’s what Tacet has done with this DVD-Audio disc. (They eschewed the next step, used on the Mussorgsky album - which they call Moving Real Surround Sound. I recall feeling that was going a bit too far, and anyway there wasn’t room on this disc for a repeat of the entire program.) The mix is such that the listener feels seated at the keyboard of a gigantic grand piano that bends around in a horseshoe shape - the lowest bass notes coming from the left surround speaker and the highest treble from the right surround. The effect is similar to that of the binaural options on the Zenph Studios re-performances by Glenn Gould and Art Tatum, but more exaggerated on the keyboard length and placement.
This expansion of the piano may be artificial, but I find it highly appropriate for the fullest appreciation of Debussy’s subtle art in his Preludes. Some of them are at extremely low level, with long pauses while the notes resound and die out, and much use of the pedal. Much as I enjoy even mono recordings of the Preludes - such as Gieseking’s - or the sensitive tho hiss-ridden Nonesuch recording by Paul Jacobs - these recordings by Koroliov sound almost like different works due to the variety of tone colors and effects that were missed before. One can now easily grasp the concept that Debussy "orchestrated" this music for the piano - stretching its capabilities in ways no composer had before - not only in dynamics but also in pitch extension - using every one of the 88 notes, including the extremes of the keyboard. Then there is the mixing of sounds dying out after notes are struck, with judicious use of the pedal. Some of the Preludes are taken at a slower tempo than I’m used to, allowing more interplay of reverberating tones. The Sunken Cathedral, for example, seemed less spectacular but more gloomy.
Evgeni Koroliov performs worldwide and has a varied repertory, but has received special acclaim for his Bach performances and recordings. His first Tacet release was The Art of Fugue; he has also done the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier for Tacet. His glorious interpretations of the Debussy Preludes transport the listener to another world and Tacet’s highly unusual approach makes it easier for the listener to enter that world. Highly recommended! (If you don’t have DVD-A capability, remember you can still enjoy a surround presentation on any DVD player using Dolby 5.1 - in spite of there being no Dolby logos on the disc. You will only experience a loss of some transparency vs. the DVD-A option.)
John Sunier

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