Opener “Brouillards” (Mist) means a lot more to me than does “Clair de Lune,” and if I were Debussy and in some ridiculous gun-to-my-head-which-prelude-would-you-save, I’d pick “Brouillards” before the trigger-man could finish the question. I know he hates the term, but impressionism was about color, and Debussy manages to achieve that here with such a unique approach, that is, having the left hand play chords comprised only of open notes (white keys) and having the right hand directly on top playing arpeggios almost entirely sharps or flats (the black keys). The result is an aural estimation of the title, and thus, one of Debussy’s most atmospheric pieces.
Broadly speaking, I find Debussy’s second set of preludes to be different than the first because of a constant undertone of darkness present in a lot of songs here. The first example would be “Brouillards,” where, every now and then, the mist dissipates (first occurring at the 0:50 mark), and an ominous riff – like heavy footsteps – comes in before disappearing back into the mist. Elsewhere, though much has been made of the autumnal beauty of “Feuilles mortes” (Dead leaves), the most striking passage for me is the bridge, starting around the 1:10 mark, where the melody slowly descends from treble to bass, and eventually, around the 1:40 mark, the right hand lingers on a two-chord melody that sounds like (again) footsteps trudging through dead leaves.
The same goes for “La Puerta del Vino”, which is about a wine gate in Granada; the loud playing of the left hand suggests there’s something a lot more sinister going on than wine-drinking festivities. Elsewhere, Google tells me the Ondine is a water nymph of Scandinavian lore, who live in crystal palaces deep underneath lakes, where they sometimes lure fisherman there to slowly pass away in complete bliss. I don’t know – sounds like a good way to go, to be honest. And the music captures both the bliss and the inevitable death: the arpeggios are meant to sound like rippling water, and the left hand’s playing suggests the thing causing ripples to be something you want to swim away from.
Even forgetting “Brouillards,” I’d say this is the better set of preludes than volume 1. Sure, there isn’t anything as simply gorgeous as “La fille aux cheveux de lin.” But, where direct comparisons are available, the representative of the second set usually bests that of the first. Take, for example, ”General Lavine”, which is based on an entertainer named Edward Lavine, which makes for an easy comparison to “Minstrels.” I don’t know anything about Lavine or Debussy’s opinions about him, but based on this song along, I’d have guessed he thought he was hilarious. The way chords come crashing out of nowhere make it seem like Lavine keeps falling flat on his face (ie. The theme at the 0:20 mark, where Lavine/Debussy starts a melodic dance that just ends). This is in contrast to “Minstrels,” which sounded like a simple tribute in comparison.
A more fitting match would be, ”Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C” and the first volume’s “La serenade interrompue” (interestingly, both are the ninth songs on their respective volumes). You remember that one, right? The really fun one of the young male’s woeful attempts at serenading a lady? By this I mean, “Hommage” is the most light-hearted of the second volume, with its abrupt stops and constant shifts in direction (ie. opening with a parody of “God Save the Queen”; the skipping a Parisian street sequence at the 1:42 mark ending in a sudden cul-de-sac at 1:50), it sounds like Debussy was toying with audience expectations.
Like the first volume, I don’t find every song to be a success. The most I can say about “Bruyeres” is that if you skip to the 1:15 mark, you get to hear what sounds like John Williams’ main inspiration for the “Star Wars (Main Theme).” The most memorable part of “Canope” (inspired by Egyptian canopic jars) is the sharp chords in the middle section, and ”Le tierces alternées” is made redundant by the following song (more on that momentarily); the least evocative of any of the preludes (its title is translated as alternating thirds, which is what happens). Generally speaking, the showy speed-based songs are some of the weaker ones on either volume.
“Feux d’artificie” (Fireworks) closes the album with a fervent display of Michelangeli’s fingers moving so fast across the keyboard, he’s at risk of setting the thing on fire at any point in time. (So fervent, in fact, that he can’t stop himself from moaning at the 1:35 mark.) This is what I meant by making “Le tierces alternées” redundant; “Feux d’artificie” is faster, more technically challenging (sounds like it, anyway) and still evocative: it sounds like constant blasts of fireworks in the night sky. Again, a much better closer than “Minstrels”, though it makes sense that Debussy saved the better closer for the one that would close both books.