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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete Works for Piano Solo - Vol. III
Danse bohémienne (1880) [02:09]
Mazurka (c.1889) [02:50]
Deux Arabesques (1888) [07:17]
Rêverie (pub. 1890) [03:55]
Valse romantique [02:59]
Suite bergamasque (1890) [17:09]
Ballade (pub. 1891) [06:54]
Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) (pub. 1890) [05:54]
Nocturne (pub. 1890) [05:32]
Pour le piano (1894-1901) [12:54]
Håkon Austbø (piano)
rec. 21-23 February 2006, Sofienberg kirke, Oslo
SIMAX PSC 1297 [67:45]


Though this is the final volume of Austbø’s Debussy cycle it is actually dedicated to the earlier works and covers exactly the same ground as the first volume of Thiollier’s Naxos cycle. Complete cycles don’t always overlap so conveniently. In this case your choice of one or the other doesn’t oblige you to stick with the same pianist all the way to avoid duplications or omissions. In truth, any chronologically arranged cycle would start like this, since Debussy’s pre-impressionist pieces – up to Pour le piano – fit neatly onto one CD. However, Pascal Rogé for one, in his ongoing Onyx cycle, has preferred to slip these early pieces a few at a time into discs mainly devoted to later works. The listener-friendly solution as opposed to the musicological one, you might say. Setting these relative trifles alongside some of the masterpieces of the piano literature can emphasize their limits, however. Hearing them all together may bring home to you how much they nevertheless have to offer. Certainly, both Thiollier and Austbø inspire this thought.

Thiollier was recorded in a church, resulting in a resonant, warm sound which at its best recalls the glistening sonorities that still shine through Gieseking’s legendary recordings from the 1950s. He is freer than Gieseking, but his fingers know where to find the magic in Debussy. In the dreamier pieces, the first Arabesque, the Rêverie, the Ballade, the Nocturne and Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque I found him utterly captivating. He also makes the remaining movements of the Suite bergamasque a more convincing setting than usual for Clair de lune. I felt, however, that his do-it-yourself approach was less attuned to the dance-based pieces, particularly the Mazurka and the Valse romantique, which get pulled out of shape.

Austbø was also recorded in a church, but until I saw this in the booklet I took it for a normal studio sound. The piano is a bit less overpoweringly grand than that of Pascal Rogé in the second instalment of his new survey. The performances and recordings both impress by their delicacy. Austbø keeps his textures clean and clear, avoiding impressionist washes of sound. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t use the pedal, in fact he uses it a lot at times, but he has the type of clear touch which avoids things getting clouded.

More than Thiollier, he remains conscious of the roots of these pieces in Grieg and in the type of French salon music we also find in early Fauré. The music emerges as a sort of parallel to Delius’s earliest orchestral works. He is clearly preferable in the dance pieces, excepting the Danse (Tarantelle styrienne). Theoretically his steady tempo is correct for Debussy’s Allegretto marking but it signally lacks the verve of Thiollier, let alone Gieseking who evidently agreed that Debussy’s marking was too cautious. His stricter, drier approach could be preferred in the neo-classical suite Pour le piano, though there’s a lot to be said for Thiollier’s joyous abandon here. He is better behaved but far less magical in the Prélude to the Suite bergamasque, though the grace of his Menuet and Passepied offer a genuine alternative to Thiollier. Clair de lune casts its usual spell at the beginning and end, but the central section is plain compared with Thiollier’s more inspired flights.

I also thought the Rêverie well managed, with an attention to the motivic interest in the left hand that compensates to some extent for his more homely approach to the music. On the other hand, the Ballade in particular reminded me that I had recently abandoned an attempt to listen to Austbø’s performance of Brahms’s shorter works (now on Brilliant) on account of his frequent separation of the hands and arpeggiation of the chords. Though to judge from a recent Pianophiles discussion, this could be a plus point for some.

In short, I would say Austbø is the more historically aware performer. He knows these are attractive but minor early pieces and he doesn’t try to make them sound any more than that. Thiollier seeks a timeless beauty, even greatness, in them. When he finds it, he is preferable. When he doesn’t, distortion may result. Personally I would prefer Thiollier, because the pieces he makes most beautiful are the ones I most like to listen to anyway. The fact that Austbø does a better job with the Mazurka and the Valse romantique must be weighed against the fact that I could happily live the rest of my life without hearing any further performances of these admittedly agreeable trifles. Others may not agree. There is also the further complication that Austbø is slightly preferable in the one major work here, Pour le piano. I hope I have described the two discs sufficiently well for the reader to understand which he might prefer. You will get excellently informative notes either way. I have tried to keep the price factor out of it, but it is a further point in favour of Thiollier.

Christopher Howell 


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