The story of my much-delayed debut album
By George Lepauw
October 14, 2022
I am extremely excited to announce the release of my debut album, the complete Préludes for piano by Claude Debussy, on Orchid Classics, Friday, October 21, 2022! It has been a long time coming.
The labyrinthine story of this recording is what I wanted to share with you here.
While a student at Northwestern University, I had fallen in love with Debussy’s magnificent, mind-altering preludes, partly revealed to me by my friend Adam Swayne, a passionate British performer and teacher, who brilliantly played them in our class when we were both studying with Ursula Oppens. After learning them myself, I made them a core of my recital programs in the U.S.A., France and Finland. After some time, my father Didier Lepauw, a former first violinist with the Orchestre de Paris, thought it a good idea to organise a professionally filmed recording of these works, in the beautiful Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago.
My father hired a top crew to film the sessions, which even involved a camera on a crane that was to swing above my head and hands, while I had asked my friend and talented audio engineer Maxim Anisimov to record the music. It took a few hours to set up all the sessions’ technical elements and, after the obligatory sound and camera checks, it was time to roll. Just like concert time, it was by then 8pm.
I performed both books of twelve preludes (Debussy published Book I in 1909 and Book II in 1913), one after the other in their set order, as I would have for a public performance. Around 10pm, I ran the whole program one more time, from start to finish. At midnight, I touched up a few spots to make sure I had all the correct notes, a normal recording technique that the sound engineer helps to pinpoint, as he follows the score carefully to identify anything that may be imperfect or unclear. By 2 in the morning, it was a wrap. We packed up and called it a night.
The date was August 1, 2007.
Over the following weeks, I regularly met with Max the engineer, to listen attentively to my takes and make my selection of favourites from the two run-throughs, from which we built the recording. Some occasional noises could be heard, inadvertently made by the crew as they moved with the cameras on the old stage’s floor board. While we got rid of most squeaks and cracks, what remains actually makes the recording sound even more like an authentic historical, live performance, which is in essence what this is!
As for editing the film, it turned out to be more complicated and costly than I or my father had anticipated, and we weren’t ready to jump into that process. Being in no rush, the project was temporarily put on hold.
Little did I know that Ludwig van Beethoven would shortly after come knocking on my door to present me with a piano trio which had never received its world premiere! This led to a major endeavour to reveal this “new” work to the world with a wonderful group I founded for the occasion with my colleagues, cellist Wendy Warner and violinist Sang Mee Lee. Shortly after the much-anticipated world premiere of this forgotten work in early 2009, Chicago-based Cedille Records offered to produce and release an album of this and other lesser known Beethoven trios, which we quickly recorded. Its release was a success, just as we gave our New York City premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, in front of an excitedly curious audience which included Maestro Kurt Masur, actor Viggo Mortensen, and the New York Times! This recording, known as the Beethoven Project Trio, turned out to be my first formal album release.
This whole Beethoven adventure then led me to establish the International Beethoven Project, a Chicago-based non-profit whose mission was (and still is) to promote classical music in our modern world inspired by Beethoven’s creative and humanist spirit. Thinking about making more recordings, even while continuing to perform recitals, chamber music and concertos, was far from my mind in the first half of the previous decade as I managed the non-profit’s ambitious productions and festivals.
As time went on, my Debussy album began to slip from my mind. Only a tiny handful of people even knew it existed. I also began to tell myself that this recording wouldn’t stand up to my evolving standards and that I could perhaps make a new, “better” version of these works some day, the result of self-doubt more than anything. Plus, by 2016 I was really into Bach, and decided to record his complete Well-Tempered Clavier, which somehow seemed appropriate in the new age brought about by Brexit and Trump: Bach was a strong grounding force, a necessary counterweight in these vociferously volatile times. By the end of 2017, with the Bach project in the bag, searching for a record label to release it, I was introduced to Matthew Trusler of Orchid Classics who felt that this Bach would make a great addition to the label’s catalogue. Loving the way Matthew thought about recordings in the current era, I accepted his offer. The Bach48 Album, my first formal solo record, was released in February 2020, just in time for the arrival of Covid and the space for all to dive into Bach’s 5-hour masterpiece!
The centenary of Debussy’s death in 2018 gave me an opportunity to resurrect and perform the Debussy preludes again in concert. During one of my conversations with Matthew about the Bach project, I mentioned that I had recorded Debussy before but was thinking of rerecording the Préludes. Matthew seemed curious and thought it might be nice to make an album of this new recording after the Bach. But he also asked me if he could listen to the old recording. I had to dig out the master, a “300-year gold compact disc” (the best quality CD to keep an audio file safe) carefully packed away in a shoebox which luckily hadn’t been thrown away. I made a copy and sent it over, not having the courage to listen to it myself, for fear of hating what I heard. But Matthew did listen to it and thought it was perfect as it was, wondering why I would ever want to rerecord an album which was so good to begin with. He even teased me for having so many doubts, yet I knew that he fully understood me, as a musician himself: we have a tendency to torture ourselves over what we think is our musical worth!
So now, here we have it, with Matthew’s support and on Orchid, my actual debut album, much delayed, recorded in my twenties, is finally coming out as an unintended time capsule.
Fifteen years older, ever so slightly wiser, I have finally gathered the courage to release these preludes, which, after daring to listen to them again, I admit quite liking what I did. Having had multiple phases of a performance, recording and teaching career, of nonprofit leadership and festival organising in the time it took me to release this album, I am joyfully taking this opportunity to reset all of it and start anew (is it allowed?) in a more conscious and accepting approach to life, art and career.
I have also made Paris my primary homebase again after many years spent in the United States. I am ready to (re)introduce myself to European audiences, where it all started for me as a child, but on my now grown-up terms. More importantly, my next recordings will not wait fifteen years for their release! I do have several projects in the works: Beethoven Sonatas and Variation sets, 18th century French music, more Debussy… I am passionate about having so much great music to explore, and hope to be able to continue sharing it with fans of classical music over the coming years.
What about the film version? Yes, it will also be released, track by track over time. The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Fireworks are already available, elegantly edited by Martin Mirabel, who also co-directed the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier film and documentary along with Mariano Nante (visit www.bach48.com for more info). The Debussy films will be released on our dedicated website www.claudedebussy.fr and on Orchid’s site as they are ready. Let me add that the success of the Debussy album can only help speed up the editing process of the films! So do consider purchasing the album and encouraging your music-loving friends to do the same.
I hope you will continue to visit this site and www.claudedebussy.fr to learn more about my approach to Debussy’s music, and general information about the composer and his preludes.