Though recorded over
seven years ago, this is the first instalment
of a Debussy cycle which has still only
reached Volume 3 [Volume 4, based
around the "Etudes", was set
down in July 2007]. I made acquaintance
with these performances while reviewing
the second volume in Jean-Efflam
Bavouzet’s Chandos cycle. I have no
disagreement at all with Terry Barfoot’s
review on this site, but since I
find that Ogawa’s and Bavouzet’s are
the most interesting of the several
cycles currently under way or just completed,
I should like to add my voice to the
chorus of praise.
Apart from Bavouzet,
my main comparison has been with Monique
Haas, whose recordings of Debussy and
Ravel have been gathered into a 6-CD
set (Erato 2564 69967-2 review).
Bavouzet has not yet recorded the "Images".
The record under discussion
begins with the two books of "Images"
– Debussy’s greatest mature masterpieces
for piano before the astounding two
books of "Préludes"
– then doubles back to take in the "Images
oubliées". These were not
published by the composer – though a
revised version of the central piece
became the "Sarabande" in
"Pour le piano" – and represent
his first attempts to find an impressionistic
style for the piano. Then follow the
"Estampes", his first published
pieces in an impressionistic style.
The disc closes with two of the several
single pieces written by Debussy between
"Estampes" and "Images".
Bavouzet had the bright idea of adding
"… d’un cahier d’equisses"
to these two to make a sort of unofficial
extra book of "Images". Recitalists
might bear this in mind.
Though the sequence
looks a little odd on paper it works
well. It also means that the disc couldn’t
get off to a better start. The watery
images flow from Ogawa’s fingers with
complete fluency and naturalness and
she is at her finest throughout this
book. I suppose you might look at the
pretty, smiling Oriental face on the
booklet and think "well, she’s
a natural for this sort of thing".
However, her subtle gradation of dynamics
and control of the most teeming textures
suggests that a lot of work went into
making it all sound so easy. At the
first forte in "Mouvement",
for example, she notes that the theme
in parallel fifths has a diminuendo
marked in its second bar, and again
two bars later in the left hand, whereas
when it reappears a few seconds later
there is no diminuendo. Haas plays it
the same way both times. Just after
this, Ogawa lets us hear clearly the
long Cs in the right-hand thumb. These
are the sort of details that need to
be painstakingly worked out, and obviously
Haas is disappointing
in "Mouvement". Her way of
treating toccata-like pieces on a purely
musical basis, letting the images create
themselves, is highly effective in "Jardins
sous la pluie", the last of the
"Estampes". Here it produces
laboured results. On the other hand
she is very fine in the other two pieces
in this book, so I am left to pick on
niggly little details to explain why
I still ever so slightly prefer Ogawa.
Perhaps it is a matter of the recording,
but in "Reflets dans l’eau"
Haas is sometimes too full-toned. And
it is not a matter of the recording
that a few times in "Hommage à
Rameau" the removal of the pedal
after a pause results in a downward
swish of tonality in the Haas performance.
It’s difficult to prevent this entirely
in a concert, but in a studio it might
have warranted a re-take.
On the other hand,
Haas is at her finest and most imaginative
in the second book of "Images".
Each musical line in "Cloches à
travers les feuilles" emerges as
a separate strand of bells and each
is pitted – if gently – against the
other. It is a fascinating display of
quiet yet crystalline sonorities. Richter
– who often played this as an encore
but wouldn’t touch the other two "Images"
of Book 2 – gave each set of bells its
specific distance. With him we seem
to hear a valley full of chimes gently
wafting through the evening air. Ogawa
perhaps makes the mistaken assumption
that this is another "watery"
piece. Pleasant as it is, to hear it
alongside the other two is to realize
that there is an essential toughness
to this music which needs bringing out.
Haas is over a minute
faster than Ogawa in "Et la lune
descend sur le temple qui fût".
That in itself does not prove anything,
but her landscape, while remaining suitably
blanched, has more happening in it.
Ogawa’s comes perilously close to immobility.
Ogawa is not alone
in her leisurely view of "Poissons
d’or" and later on the goldfish
dart around their tub to good effect.
Overall, though, they sound a bit lazy.
Haas’s opening is practically unpedalled;
a daring effect which produces an incredible
shimmering iridescence. Without being
much faster, her fish cavort and play
with cheeky good humour. The central
section, with its "blue" notes,
properly emerges as a bilious waltz.
Haas was truly inspired that day.
The "Images oubliées"
were still unpublished when Haas recorded
her Debussy. Bavouzet is more intense
than Ogawa in the second piece and more
upfront in the third. This does not
necessarily make him better, since Ogawa’s
wistful poetry in the "Souvenir
du Louvre" and her sense of open-eyed
wonder in "Quelques aspects"
are at least as rewarding.
Taken on its own, I
found Haas’s concentration on musical
values in "Estampes" close
to perfection. After making comparisons
though, I realize that both Bavouzet
and Ogawa find even more in the music.
Bavouzet’s Spain is a place of naked
passion and dazzling colours, arguably
spotlit by the noonday sun, while his
gardens are traversed by storms rather
than gentle rain. While this demands
to be heard, my preference is for Ogawa.
The dances of Grenada waft in and out
of our perception on the evening air
and the gardens provide a kaleidoscope
of colour under the persistently beating
Bavouzet is brilliant
in "Masques" but Ogawa provides
a minor revelation. She finds shadows
and mystery while not holding back when
the revellers are revealed close up.
On the other hand, Bavouzet provides
the necessary overall sweep in the relatively
extended "L’isle joyeuse"
which Ogawa misses, in spite of much
poetry along the way.
As I find myself saying
every time I review a disc of Debussy,
there will never be a "best"
version. Every fine cycle will have
a smattering of supreme performances
and a few slightly disappointing ones.
This first instalment of a cycle which
I sincerely hope will be completed one
day should be collected by all Debussy
enthusiasts who have so far missed out
As recorded above,
the larger part of this disc was conscripted
into the "Hatto" catalogue.
It was not sent to MusicWeb for review,
so those interested in what was done
are referred to Farhan
Malik’s wavefile analysis.
I limit myself to remarking here that
the choice was a strange one. For one
thing, Ogawa has achieved a considerable
following in the UK and spends much
of her time there, unlike the other
principal "Hatto" Debussy
players, Tateno and Rahkonen, whose
names and discs were virtually unknown
factors, never reviewed in Gramophone,
for example, and difficult to obtain.
The risk of discovery must have been
considerable. A fairly consistent feature
of the Hatto scandal, at last as regards
solo repertoire, was the avoidance of
artists well-known locally.
choosing Tateno’s "Préludes",
which offer a sort of "golden mean"
standard of interpretation, and Rahkonen’s
alert and often upfront, breezy "Etudes",
what were "Hatto" fans expected
to make of Ogawa’s gentle poetry? Perhaps
we err once again in looking for logic
in a sorry affair that has none.
Maybe it was a "dare"
by a couple growing tired of "playing
it safe". In the event this was
one of the last "Hatto" discs
to come out before the scandal broke.
It had very limited circulation and
no reviews at all – or even newsgroup
comment – as far as I am aware.