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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
The Complete Piano Works Vol. 2

12 Études [46:57], La Plus que lente [4:47], 2 Arabesques [6:38], Hommage à Haydn [2:05], D’un Cahier d’esquisses [4:23]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
rec. Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, 28 December 2001 (Études), 4 April 2002 (Arabesques), 10 July 2002 (Hommage and Cahier), no date given for "La Plus que lente".
CONCERT ARTIST CACD 9131-2 [65:22]

 

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 twelve "Études".

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 music".

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 meaning.

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".

Christopher Howell

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