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MusicWeb has suspended the sale of Concert Artists discs until it can be resolved which were actually recorded by Joyce Hatto



Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes, première livre (1910) [37:57], deuxième livre (1913) [38:26]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 4th January and 16th March 2001 at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge (UK)
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Timings are not everything, but the 75:08 of this disc already tells us something. Looking at the other CD versions I have to hand, I find they spread to two discs with timings as follows: Gifford 81:33, Fou T’Song 84:33, Antonioli 87:31. Fishing around further, I find that a few other versions are on one disc, though all are longer than Joyce Hatto, but two discs seem to be the norm. These timings are from "Gramophone", which rounds them to the nearest minute: Rogé 78, Tirimo 78, Martin Jones 79, Tan 83, Zimerman 84, Cassard 85. However, there is one recording that is faster than Hatto’s, and it is a very important one, that by Walter Gieseking: 70:20.

The fact that the modern norm is around ten minutes longer than Gieseking should surely be sounding warning bells in certain quarters, for was not Gieseking the supreme interpreter of this music? If his performances were so fine, and so apparently authentic, is it not a little odd that everybody plays the music differently? Furthermore, in all the comment I have seen on these famous recordings, I have never seen it suggested that the great man’s tempi were over-swift, and it would indeed be difficult to think such a thing, so perfectly poised are they even at their most volatile.

Of course, overall timings tell us very little about what happens along the way, so my next observation was that Hatto is consistently faster than her modern competitors – whether in slow pieces, moderate ones or fast ones – with very, very few exceptions. Whereas, in comparison with Gieseking, the situation is more complex. In a number of pieces – the first, for example – he is slower, while he is more volatile in a number of the faster pieces. But even individual timings don’t tell us everything. Gieseking has a slower basic tempo than Hatto in "Les sons et les parfums", yet on account of his volatility when Debussy asks for "En animant", he actually comes up with a shorter timing. This raises the point that, if we are to believe Debussy’s metronome markings, even Gieseking’s tempi are sometimes sedate. Obviously a metronome is a poor guide to music that is peppered with such instructions as "Plus lent", "En animant", "Cédez", "Rubato", "Serrez", all these in the space of just two lines in "Les sons et les parfums", and which obviously demands flexibility even where nothing is marked. Yet if you play the first eight bars of this same prelude at the marked tempo (the first tempo change is at bar 9), the music seems radically different from what we usually hear, almost another piece entirely, Debussy’s "Modéré" emerging as a lilting Allegretto. Hatto has more of this "Allegretto" quality than Gieseking, let alone anyone else I’ve ever heard. So, if she is faster than any modern rival (that I know), it is because she is closer to what Debussy wrote. Gieseking has shorter timings still because of his more radical reaction to some of the internal tempo changes. Since Debussy gave no metronome marks for internal tempo changes, we shall never know how drastic he intended them to be, though we do have a piano roll where he interprets "Un peu moins lent" in "La Cathédrale engloutie" as a virtual doubling of the tempo.

Does Hatto sound fast? The interesting thing is that she does not; the performances have an autumnal glow, thanks to her technical ease (Gieseking has his adventurous moments) and warm, limpid sound, very finely recorded, while not lacking in either vitality or humour where called for. She seems to find a just solution, musically and poetically, to each prelude. But perhaps I should declare an interest, since I find I have a wretchedly recorded tape of myself playing these preludes around fifteen years ago with timings that often match Hatto’s to a few seconds. Which is not to say I played them equally well (I’m sure I didn’t!), but the fact that so many of the pieces emerged here sounding much as they sound in my head whenever I think of them may make me suspect as a reviewer. Perhaps we’ve both got it wrong! And yet I honestly believe that, if you play what Debussy wrote, the result is bound to be something like what we hear on this disc. To say that this is the most recommendable of the modern versions that I know becomes superfluous when many of the others don’t play Debussy’s preludes at all but something else of their own invention.

And yet, I have to say that Gieseking is something else again (and so is the legendary Guido Agosti in a handful of preludes on Aura). I have used the word "volatile" several times and this is the quality of those performances that I most remember for, while his starting point is the Olympian calm and poise for which he was famed, he lives dangerously, his Puck and his Ondine darting hither and thither, his ocean seething and reeling in "Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest". I have heard Hatto get outside herself and play with this sort of inspiration sometimes in Liszt, and her Islamey (Balakirev) is hair-raising; more often it is her calm musicianship and sense of style which impress, as they do here. Don’t miss Gieseking, but Hatto has a relaxed, sunlit quality, pure Monet, that has its own attraction.

I realize that it’s getting a little embarrassing that this site continues to churn out glowing review after glowing review (not only from me) of Joyce Hatto’s records while other magazines and sites, despise Concert Artist as a cottage industry and do not review the discs at all. I almost wish she would make a really bad disc just so I can show I know how to listen. But so far she hasn’t … If any reader who buys this or other Hatto discs on the strength of our reviews feels he has been duped, remember we have a bulletin board. I should very much like to know why only we are pushing these recordings.

Christopher Howell



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