I seem to have written rather often recently that, of recent and
ongoing cycles of Debussy’s piano music, those by Noriko Ogawa
and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet seem to me the most important. They continue
to be issued in combinations and couplings that make straight
comparisons difficult. Ogawa’s “Etudes” are appearing well in
advance of Bavouzet’s even though, as a result of delays in writing
this review, Bavouzet’s Volume 4, including the “Etudes”, has
now been announced. Just to complicate matters even more, Bavouzet’s
Volume 4 is his last – unless there has been a change of plan
– while we still await a fifth CD from Ogawa which will group
together the earlier pieces. The extra CD is certainly not due
to short timings: look at the present one! Ogawa has included
two major items not always considered part of the “canon”. One
was the ballet “La Boîte à Joujoux”, which Debussy left in piano
score, intending to orchestrate it, and of which she gave a really
marvellous performance in her Vol. 3. Now she adds the “Six
Epigraphes antiques”, first written by Debussy for piano
duet and later reworked in a solo version. The three smaller works
on the present CD, moreover, were discovered too late even for
inclusion in Thiollier’s variable 6-CD cycle on Naxos, though
Bavouzet gives us the “Etude retrouvée” and “Les Soirs illuminés”.
what of Ogawa’s “Etudes”? Ogawa has consistently shown, throughout
her cycle so far, an innate musicality combined with a translucent,
delicate sound that nevertheless does not exclude power when
required. She has always appeared technically at her ease. However,
nothing else in Debussy makes the sort of fanatical technical
demands that the “Etudes” consistently do, so it is pleasing,
if not especially surprising, to report that the same naturalness
and instinctive empathy with the music emerge unfazed by the
stringent mechanical requirements. Indeed, while many performances
of these pieces leave me wondering if Debussy’s meticulous and
multifarious dynamic markings are not too fussy ever to be fully
realized, I cannot say I noticed any markings in any of the
12 “Etudes” that Ogawa has ignored. This proves, I think, that
her apparent simplicity and spontaneity are the result of far
more sheer hard work than is apparent.
comparisons I turned to Uchida and Rahkonen. The former (on
Philips) won an award and much praise when it was new. The latter
(on Finlandia) was one of my Records of the Year two years ago.
Admittedly, I chose it believing the performances were the semi-miraculous
issue of a terminally sick old lady, but on returning to them
post-scandal I saw no reason to lessen my admiration for them.
However, the Rahkonen disc remains unavailable – a bargain reissue
would affect the competitive situation considerably – so for
the moment I feel that both it and Uchida can now be considered
differences can be summed up from the second “Etude”. Ogawa
is flowing, caressing. Uchida is a little faster, occasionally
ready to tear away impetuously. Rahkonen, at about the same
tempo as Ogawa, is more upfront at the expense of sometimes
playing too loudly.
is a little more generous in her pedalling. In the section of
no. 4 marked “au Mouvt, in poco agitato”, Uchida and Rakhonen
have the right-hand sixths clear to the point of being brittle
with (as far as I can tell) no pedal at all. The result sounds
aggressive from the former, heavy from the latter. Ogawa surrounds
them with a halo of pedal. This could be risky but her control
of pedalling is superfine. Neither here nor anywhere else did
I feel that the increased lustre and warmth produced by her
added pedalling was accompanied by any attendant blurring.
times the differences are minimal. It may seem niggling indeed
to say that Uchida is too loud in bar 9 – and only in that bar
– of no. 8, but that is the only point in the entire piece where
I could see a preference between her and Ogawa. In general it
may be said that Uchida is the more impetuous, with a tendency
to ignore Debussy’s sudden drops to piano; Rahkonen is
bold and assertive and may be enjoyed as such. She does, however,
often mark up Debussy’s dynamics. But I wish to add that both
Uchida and Rahkonen have some exquisite pianissimos as
well. In short, I don’t think you could expect to hear these
“Etudes” played more beautifully – and by that I mean “with
a greater revelation of their beauty” – than they are by Ogawa.
have seen the view expressed that Ogawa’s “Etudes” are very
nicely played but ultimately unmemorable. I don’t really agree
but I can see that there is also a place for a more questioning,
modernist interpretation. Bavouzet may be the man. I should
also like to hear Aimard, from the more recent versions.
“Etude retrouvé” is not so much a first version of the eleventh
“Etude” – “pour les Arpèges composés” – as a totally different
piece addressing the same technical problem. It is more traditional
in harmonic structure – I thought of Rachmaninov at times –
and would have sat rather uneasily with its companions had it
remained in place. Some listeners may like it all the more for
that. Ogawa’s control of the different textural strands is exemplary.
“Intermède” is actually an arrangement, possibly by Debussy
himself, of a movement from an early Piano Trio. It seems to
me more interesting as music than several of the “canonical”
early works and is played by Ogawa with a fragrant elegance
that bodes well for her forthcoming (I hope) recording of these.
plays the rather strange, abstruse “Six Epigraphes antiques”
with a sense of trance-like wonder. Thiollier is very slightly
faster in all but one piece and seizes the opportunity for boldness
when it is offered. You might feel he finds more variety. However,
I suggest that, of the two, it is Ogawa with her semi-minimalist
approach who has a precise overall view of the music, as opposed
to interpreting it – very nicely – on a section-by-section basis.
The return at the end of the last piece of the opening theme
of the first has an “end-of-the-story” feeling from her while
from Thiollier it just happens.
“end-of-the-story” feeling also comes across in the recording
by Jean-François Antonioli (Claves CD 50-9008). His tempi are
faster still – except, also here, in one piece – and enough
so to find a different overall character. The music emerges
as lithe, balletic, almost neo-classical. I presume this 1990
CD has long since disappeared from view. If you can access it,
this rather than Thiollier is the real alternative to Ogawa.
the brief “Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon”, included
by Bavouzet in his Volume 1. With Ogawa it is a final, sad visitation
of the impressionist world, the sounds wafting gently through
the air. Bavouzet finds more tension. I couldn’t choose between
notes and a recording that is not only very fine in itself but
also totally attuned to Ogawa’s sound-world.