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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Works: Volume 3

Préludes (2ème Livre) (1910-1913) [37:57]
Berceuse Héroïque (1914) [3:58]
Pièce pour l'oeuvre du “Vêtement du Blessé” (1915) [1:11]
Elégie (1915) [1:54]
La Boîte à Joujoux (1913) [33:04]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
rec. 21-24 July 2005 (trs. 1-12); 27-28 June 2005 (trs. 16-19), Nybrokajen, former Academy of Music, Stockholm, Sweden. DDD
BIS BIS-CD-1355 [79:37]

This is my first encounter with the playing of Noriko Ogawa and I must say that I am seriously impressed. There have already been two volumes of Ogawa’s interpretation of Debussy’s piano music and both have received excellent reviews.

A little about the pianist will not go amiss. Ms Ogawa first hit the headlines when she won third prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1987. Since then she has pursued a career in her native Japan as well as the United States and Europe – where she now spends more than six months each year. She devotes her time to a variety of pianistic enterprises including chamber music and concertos. Her present catalogue of CDs includes some seventeen recordings with works by Japanese composers, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky. But perhaps it is her concert repertoire that astonishes one the most. She has some fifty piano concertos in her list including all those by Rachmaninov and Beethoven. Rarities include those by Saeverud and Tcherepnin. Recently, with Kathryn Stott, she gave the world premiere of Graham Fitkin’s Double Concerto – ‘Circuit’.

Looking at the repertoire on this CD we find some enchanting, relatively rarely heard and little known numbers. The Boîte à Joujoux in its pianistic manifestation is reasonably well represented in the catalogues. Of course most people who know this work will probably have heard it in its orchestral guise. It’s a strange work – it may be all about Claude-Emma’s toy-box – but it is certainly a toy-box seen through the distorting lens of something more sinister. Ogawa brings out all the strange and eccentric contrasts in this work. Much of the music is charming but some of it is almost diabolic. My teddy bear was never this scary! There is certainly a magic about this score – but the magic is not always good. There are some wicked toys in here somewhere. The characters include a toy elephant, ‘Le Policeman’, Polichinelle, an English Soldier and a ‘jack tar’. The programme notes give a complete synopsis of this strange ballet which is really welcome. One of the little anecdotes that I like about this work is the composer’s own statement that he had extracted ‘some confidences from some of Chou Chou’s [Debussy’s daughter’s pet name] old dolls’.

The Berceuse Héroïque was written in the early days of the First World War and formed a contribution to King Albert’s Book which was a tribute to the monarch and the Belgian people. The story goes that Debussy intended to write a march, but somehow it turned into a lullaby! There is a nod to patriotism though, with a quotation from the Belgian National Anthem. It is a strange piece and, for obvious reasons is filled with darkness; rarely does the light break through. However there is a haunting beauty about this work that defies and transcends its horrific genesis.

Two other interesting miniatures are given on this recording. The first is the Pièce pour l'oeuvre du “Vêtement du Blessé” which appeals to me because it is one of the few pieces of Debussy that I can play reasonably well! It was another wartime piece written for fundraising purposes. It is actually quite a gorgeous little waltz. This work was not published until some twenty years after the composer’s death.

The second miniature is the Elégie which also was composed for wartime fundraising. It was once believed to have been the very last piece that Debussy composed. However the work with that honour later turned out to be the piano piece based on words by Baudelaire, Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon from 1917. The Elégie is another work that does not admit much in the way of light; it was written shortly after the composer had an operation for cancer.

The works included on this CD are quite interesting in their own right and make an excellent coupling. Book 2 of the Préludes is slightly less popular than Book 1. However, this is perhaps due to the fact that none of them have really taken a life of their own – such as The Girl with Flaxen Hair or the Submerged Cathedral. Let’s look at the numbers game. Book 1 is available in some 58 recordings whilst Book 2 comes second with 49. There are 174 recordings available of the Flaxen Haired Girl and 62 of the Cathedral! These compare to the two most famous numbers from Book 2 - Feux d’artifice and La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune - 25 and 21 recordings respectively.

Book 2 of the Préludes receives a stunning performance by Noriko Ogawa. I have always felt that this second ‘cahier’ is just as impressive as the more popular Book 1. In fact some of the ‘preludes’ have the edge. It is not necessary to analyse or describe each of the preludes save to point out a few highlights.

I must mention ‘La Puerta del Vino’. Ogawa’s performance is superb. All the attributes of a Spanish cabaret turn are present. The success of this piece depends on the wide contrasts and changes of pace and direction. Yet somehow the piece keeps moving: there is an underlying momentum. All the imagery of a sultry Iberian night is here along with an equally sultry and temperamental dancer.

Water-nymphs have always had an appeal to me, so it is hardly surprising that Ondine is one of my favourite Préludes. This is a watery delicate piece that captures the games and sports of this particular female sprite. The pianist has to respond to all the varying changes and chances of the nymph’s moods.

When listening to the Préludes I usually turn to two in particular to get my bearings – one from each book. For the record these are the Sérénade interrompue from Book 1 and Les tierces alternées from the present book. 'Les tierces alternées' is the only number in the Préludes which has been given a purely technical title as opposed to an ‘image’. This is a splendid piece, in spite of the fact that it is little regarded by most commentators. It is a working out of the problem of pianist’s technique posed in the title. The knack of this piece is to control the rise and fall of the tone in a subtle but not an extrovert manner. Fiendishly difficult but certainly well contrived by Ogawa – she passes the test with flying colours!

It is not necessary to point out any more highlights – save to say that this is one of the most satisfying and evocative performances of this great work that I have heard. However, if the listener were to hear one only of these Préludes it must be the last - the Feux d’artifice – Fireworks. This number displays all the technical expertise and the brilliance that characterises all of Ogawa’s performances on this stunning CD.

John France



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