After a highly successful
disc of the "Préludes",
Joyce Hatto’s ongoing Debussy series
sets its sights on the toughest assignment
among the composer’s piano works, the
Although the public
has taken a large amount of Debussy’s
music to its heart – perhaps surprisingly
since he is more modern than they often
realize – it seems that they need to
couple his works with an image in order
to love them. Thus his later, more abstract
works, the three sonatas for various
instruments, the elusive late orchestral
masterpiece unhelpfully entitled "Jeux"
and the piano "Études"
have tended to remain "musician’s
And yet, those who
play the music as well as listening
to it know that even by the time of
the "Préludes" Debussy
was beginning to distrust the merely
pictorial. The "titles" we
all know so well are actually added
at the end in brackets, preceded by
a series of dots. They are merely hints
as to what the piece might have
suggested to us. I must say I envy anyone
who still has the opportunity to hear
these pieces in complete ignorance of
their "titles" and could thus
compare his own reactions to Debussy’s
"hints". Presumably if he
finds a piece has suggested something
quite different to him, Debussy would
not have minded. Perhaps the composer
would not have minded either if the
listener provided for his own use "titles"
for each of the "Études"
though he himself, consistently with
his increased interest in abstract forms,
declined to help, limiting himself to
purely technical titles – "For
the five fingers", "For the
thirds", "For the fourths"
and so on.
A few years ago I reviewed
a two-CD set of the "Préludes"
and "Études" by Fou
Ts’ong and found him particularly suited
to the latter. It is unusually bold
playing for Debussy and emphasizes his
modernist leanings. If you tried fitting
images to his performances I think you
would come up with fairly abstract ones
– "Clashing triangles", "Squares
and circles", and so on. This is
not intended as a criticism – Debussy
was steering 20th century
music in a direction which was to pass
through Stravinsky to Webern and beyond,
and we may be grateful for an interpretation
which reminds us of this.
Listening to Joyce
Hatto’s performances, I found that poetic
titles came to my mind almost unbidden.
It is probably a reflection on my own
lack of imagination that they tended
to be variations on the Debussy titles
we already know and love! "Bruyères",
"Les Fées sont d’exquises
danseuses", "The Snow is Dancing",
"Et la lune descend sur le temple
qui fut", "La danse de Puck",
"Ondine", "La Terrasse
des audiences au Clair de Lune"
– all these could be found among the
"Études" if you so
wished (no, I won’t say which piece
suggested which title to me!) and I
don’t mean Debussy was repeating himself.
The piece which suggested to me "La
danse de Puck", for example, has
no resemblance with the 11th
prelude of the 1st book other
than a Puckish sort of humour.
Joyce Hatto provides
a more richly poetic – if possibly more
traditional – experience, then. But
how is it done? Partly by adopting generally
faster tempi – incredibly, in no.3 the
respective timings are: Ts’ong 6:26,
Hatto 5:14, though the difference is
more often a matter of seconds and in
one case it is Ts’ong who is faster.
Partly by using rather more pedal than
Ts’ong, though Hatto is always superbly
disciplined in this respect and never
succumbs to the sort of ill-defined
wash of sound that sometimes passes
for impressionism. The combination of
the two things means that while Fou
Ts’ong makes us aware of the role of
the individual notes, with Joyce Hatto
the notes gel to make poetry and images.
Furthermore, she uses a wider range
of colour and separates by this means
the different strands in the texture.
But above all, this seems to me to be
remarkably high-flying, free-spirited
playing, untrammelled by notes or bar-lines
yet profoundly respectful of the composer’s
And yet, if I had to
choose just one piece from Hatto’s Debussy
(so far) with which to demonstrate that
she is up there with the greats, it
would be "La Plus que lente".
I have several times wrestled with this
piece and had more or less concluded
that Debussy himself had nodded. The
waltz rhythms just didn’t seem to come
off, and nothing in Gieseking’s somewhat
hasty, unsettled performance convinced
me otherwise. Hatto has the secret of
it. She just swoons in, really slow
and with very free rubato, yet the gently
swaying slow waltz is always there.
It’s gorgeous! Likewise in "Hommage
à Haydn", where the recently-discovered
Richter performance found a Prokofief-like
ostinato in the bass-line, Hatto is
more gently lilting with a magically
singing melodic line. "D’un Cahier
d’esquisses", too, sounds more
like a masterpiece in its own right
than a half-baked idea that didn’t make
it into one of the major collections.
Lastly, the very early Arabesques in
upfront, boisterous performances – more
Chaminade than Fauré, and why
not in these youthful effusions?
Joyce Hatto’s "Préludes"
are somewhere near the top of a crowded
market. With far fewer competitors in
the "Études", this
looks like becoming a classic version.
Incredibly, it was recorded in a single
day. Indispensable then, and especially
recommended to those who have so far
not warmed to the "Études"
as they have to Debussy’s earlier collections
– and to those who have been puzzled
by "La plus que lente".