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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Works - Volume 3
Images I (1905) [15:51]
Images II (1906-7) [13:53]
Estampes (1903) [14:54]
Images oubliées (1894) [14:04]
La plus que lente (1910) [04:43]
L’Isle joyeuse (1904) [05:28]
François-Joël Thiollier (piano)
rec. 16-18 January 1996, Temple Saint Marcel, Paris
NAXOS 8.553292 [69:40]

Volume 3 of Thiollier’s Debussy cycle includes, in the Estampes and the two sets of Images, some of the composer’s most frequented and best-loved pages. The piano sound continues to be gentle and translucent, giving the pianist a head’s start compared with relatively present studio sound of Pascal Rogé’s new cycle. Thiollier’s I-did-it-my-way approach is once again broadly sympathetic to the composer and gets him further in Estampes than Rogé’s beautifully cultivated but ultimately not very communicative playing.

Whether it gets him as far as pianists like Michelangeli or Richter who chiselled out miracles of textural revelation and sculpted dynamics in some of these pieces is more in doubt. Not to speak of the legendary Gieseking. On the other hand, if you want more modern sound than the latter and find the sheer mastery of the former two somewhat off-putting in its aloofness, you will certainly find Thiollier a warm-hearted guide. In the second book of Images he is less free, for some reason. I felt that the Poissons d’or sometimes seemed to be roiling in the full ocean but in general this is a performance which will be welcomed even by those who disapprove of Thiollier’s liberties elsewhere.

If you have Gieseking or any other older cycle you might still be missing the Images oubliées which were published only in 1976. To tell the truth Debussy called them simply Images and they are more “Discarded Images” than “Forgotten Images”. On the other hand, if he had published them back in 1894, the textbooks on the history of piano music would have read slightly differently. The first recognizably “impressionistic” piece of piano music has always been claimed to be Ravel’s Jeux d’eau of 1901. Ravel himself would have acknowledged that these three pieces already contain a good many impressionistic traits. The second was partly reworked as the Sarabande in Pour le piano. The very detailed notes by Cyrus Meher-Homji refer to its “arguably clumsy-sounding (or forward-looking?) dissonances”. Thiollier’s rounded tone makes them sound neither of these. The third piece uses a folk-tune later incorporated in the third Estampe, Jardins dans la pluie.

In La plus que lente Thiollier tries too hard to be smoochy, capturing the dance lilt only intermittently towards the end and elsewhere pulling the music around mercilessly. We might recall that he was at his least successful in the first volume of the series in those pieces that have a dance background. Once again, the version purporting to be by Joyce Hatto seems to have the secret of this work. It does seem extraordinary that a performance that has been so widely admired has not been identified. Did no one really admire it before the Hattifiers took it up? - Since I wrote this Klara Kormendi on Naxos has been proposed.

I’m afraid L’isle joyeuse fails to hit the mark entirely. This isle is certainly full of noises, but with very little textural clarity. Alongside Horowitz’s magic pinpointing of every detail this is a non-starter.

Still, with the three major works goodish to excellent and the useful addition of the Images oubliées which you may not have, this can certainly be recommended, if not with quite the same enthusiasm I lavished on the first two volumes.

Christopher Howell

Earlier reviews of this series:

Volume 1
Volume 2



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