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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pour le Piano (1901) [12 :54]
Children’s Corner (1908) [16 :05]
Estampes (1903) [13 :39]
La plus que lente (1910) [4 :22]
Deux arabesques (1888) [6 :49]
Pièce pour le vêtement de blessé (Page d’album) [1 :00]
L’isle joyeuse (1904) [6 :05]
Jean-Bernard Pommier (piano)
rec. no details supplied.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6994712 [61:14] 

Experience Classicsonline

No recording details are given for this disc, but it would appear to be a reissue of one which first appeared in 1989. The accompanying booklet carries an anonymous essay I would have described as inadequate except that it contains the information that the short Page d’album was composed during the First World War for a charity dedicated to – as the title suggests – “dressing the wounds of soldiers.” I had never heard this piece and can find no other reference to it, neither in Lockspeisers’ two-volume biography nor in Guy Sacré’s monumental study La Musique de Piano. It’s a gem: a charming little waltz, slightly sad, quite perfect and characteristic. Jean-Bernard Pommier, born in Béziers and one of the most highly respected French pianists of his generation, plays it beautifully and I’m delighted to make its acquaintance.

Otherwise, this very inexpensive disc opens with the first major piano work of Debussy’s maturity, the modestly titled Pour le Piano. Pommier is very free with the pulse in the opening Prélude, making rather more of the composer’s instructions to hold and wait than many other pianists do. It is effective and convincing though, and the reading is very satisfying, even if one would wish for rather more in the way of piano and pianissimo playing. In the Sarabande he captures wonderfully well the synthesis of Debussy’s emerging style, with its backward glance, and the very romantic sound generated by big, sonorous chords. The opening of the final Toccata is hardly piano, disappointing since the rest of the reading has real stature. He brings out brilliantly well the inner voices in the miraculous middle section, but at the climax of the piece hardly respects the composer’s wish that the piano should sound like an instrument without hammers.

Pommier is wonderfully successful at imitating the talented - but businesslike - piano pupil getting through his exercises in the first piece of Children’s Corner, a little less so when the child gets bored and doodles, somewhat romantically, at the keyboard. The heavy tread of the elephant in Jimbo’s Lullaby is very skilfully brought out, but whoever is serenading the doll in the third piece is rather skittish and abrupt. The Snow is Dancing is the odd piece out in this collection, chilly, if nothing like as cold as those footsteps in the snow we encounter in the first book of Preludes. It’s a surprisingly dramatic piece, which Pommier brings out well, but there isn’t much childlike magic. An over-expressive approach means much of the simple charm of The Little Shepherd is lost, and the Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is clipped and unsmiling.

Pagodes, the first piece of the Estampes, receives an excellent performance, calm and poised, and with a well drawn contrast between the passages requiring perfect clarity of texture and those where a dreamy, impressionistic wash of sound is acceptable. La Soirée dans Grenade is very successful too, the Spanish atmosphere well evoked and sustained. Near the end, though, a flamenco guitar and castanets fleetingly appear, not quite so “light and distant” as the score demands. Then the wonderful Jardins sous la pluie begins quite a few notches above the required pianissimo and continues its hard-driven and sadly charmless way right to the end.

Having established just the right atmosphere in Debussy pseudo salon piece, La plus que lente, Pommier’s over-willingness at forte and above then rather ruins it. The hammers are in evidence once again even in the two arabesques, readings in which the pianist refuses to linger. L’isle joyeuse is Debussy at his most exuberant, but the work can seem episodic if tempo relations are not carefully managed, and I don’t find Pommier totally succeeds at this. The climax of the piece, which should be exultant, is just loud.

I have admired for many years a DG Debussy recital by Tamás Vásary which includes many of the pieces featured here. It is now available as part of a double album with the two books of Preludes in fascinating and very individual readings by the late Italian pianist Dino Ciani. Michelangeli is, in my view, unmatched in Children’s Corner (also DG). Jean-Bernard Pommier’s playing is technically brilliant, and many of the pieces work well, but in too many others I find his Debussy relentless and lacking in charm. Others will welcome the extreme clarity of articulation and pedalling, and for those, if the programme appeals, this disc is satisfying indeed.

William Hedley



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