Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune begins with a sigh: a long, languorous exhalation played on the lower notes of a solo flute. The flute’s usual brightness and brilliance is gone. It’s a dusky, breathy sound, made of half-shades and velvet: the musical embodiment of luxe, calme et volupté. And it’s completely impossible to imitate on a piano. Not so much because of the tone-colour — the best pianists can create wonders — but because no piano in existence can play an unbroken melody. Wind and string players, like singers, produce and control a near-continuous stream of sound. A piano, though, is essentially a box of hammers. It hits notes, and then they decay. When a pianist seems to play a long, singing tune, they’re merely faking at a very high level. It’s a sonic trompe l’oeil.
Benjamin Grosvenor solved the problem by dismissing it. Confronted with those opening bars, he made no attempt to imitate the sound or phrasing of a flute. Instead, they became a tiny prelude-to-the-Prélude, a preliminary running of the fingers over the keys. It was a strange transformation, and the first of many. The rippling harp figures that make Debussy’s orchestra quiver and pulse from within became sudden, glittering sprays of sound, high above the musical landscape. And Debussy’s climaxes, played as cascades of rich piano chords, inescapably suggested a peal of bells — an image that exists neither in Debussy’s original, nor the poem by Mallarmé that inspired it. Well, if you’re going to reinvent something, reinvent it thoroughly. Grosvenor played it with the glowing intensity and spacious, aristocratic assurance that he brought to this whole recital.
But why bother with a piano transcription of the Prélude at all? It’s not like there’s any shortage of original Debussy piano music.