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
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
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
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