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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Works Volume 5
12 Etudes (1915) [46:16]
D’un cahier d’esquisses (1903) [04:10]
Hommage à Haydn (1909) [02:01]
Elégie (1915) [01:40]
Morceau de concours (1904) [0:39]
Page d’album (1915) [01:08]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [03:47]
Masques (1904) [05:52]
François-Joël Thiollier (piano)
rec. 8-10 April 1997, Temple St. Marcel, Paris
NAXOS 8.553294 [64:42]

“D’un cahier d’esquisses” and “Hommage à Haydn” were issued in 2005 on Concert Artist/Fidelio CACD 9131-2 as the work of Joyce Hatto

Yes, a “Hatto original” but not such an important one as has been claimed. I announced on the bulletin board, without waiting to write the review and see it posted, my conviction that the Etudes were not Thiollier as claimed, while corroborating the identification of Hommage à Haydn and pointing to that of D’un cahier d’esquisses, which hadn’t been spotted as far as I know. Some are still insisting that the “Hatto” Etudes are heavily doctored Thiollier. As I write reports are coming in to show that “Hatto” discs do not always contain the same performances, so I suppose there is a possibility that those who say they have doctored Thiollier really do have that. I’m as sure as eggs is eggs I don’t. In two appendixes below I give detailed technical reasons why I am convinced of the two smaller pieces and still maintain that the Etudes cannot be Thiollier. Here and now I will only remark that the Hattification of the two short works is a mild affair. The timings remain about the same while the sound is somewhat brighter. This is sufficiently to its advantage to make me wonder if Naxos ought not to remaster the discs themselves. However, in view of the fact that it was recorded in a church, I daresay the slightly boomier sound is closer to what the engineers actually heard, and its gentleness suits Debussy and Thiollier’s warm way with him, as it has throughout the series.

Those who look at my appendixes may get the impression that Thiollier’s Etudes are a catalogue of poorly observed dynamic markings and overpedalling. Well actually, there are some dynamic markings which Thiollier gets right and “Hatto” doesn’t. While I was about it, I listened to the same extracts from the award-winning Uchida and Fou Ts’ong and honestly there are plenty of dynamic markings they ignore or reverse too. Frankly, Debussy was so meticulous, you might say finicky, about the dynamics in these Etudes that I wonder if an utterly accurate realization is plausible, and where it would really lead. A pity he remained utterly unhelpful about pedalling. So I think we owe it to Thiollier to set aside the score and to realize that he’s giving a different kind of performance.

When I reviewed “Hatto” I remarked that while Fou Ts’ong mostly evoked modernist images, geometrical forms rather than pictorial ones, “Hatto’s” interpretations often brought to mind Debussy titles we already know, calling up images of the moon descending on the temple of the past, and so on. Yet compared with Thiollier she occupies a midway position. He uses a more impressionistic wash of sound, with an improvisational approach to the music which aligns it surprisingly with the more “amorphous” 20th century school, the later Scott, even Sorabji. Of course, these composers took Debussy as their starting point no less than Stravinsky or Webern, so the Thiollier lesson is an interesting, if unusual, one.

Uchida’s basic approach is quite similar to that of “Hatto” – but “Hatto” definitely isn’t Uchida if you’re wondering – and I think this is the best recommendation. When we know who “Hatto” is, “she” may give Uchida quite a run for her money. I can’t recommend Thiollier above Uchida even at the price, but why not get both? You’ll have two very different takes on some fascinating music.

Some of the smaller pieces were new to me, but nothing is insignificant. The Elegie and Page d’album are most touching, as is the longer Berceuse heroïque, while the tiny Morceau de concours says a good deal more than I expected. Unfortunately Thiollier finishes with an own goal. Masques is really just a noisy muddle, with only vague hints of his best form even in the quieter passages, which remain unsettled.

For those who don’t want to go looking it up, my original “Hatto” review said:

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.

The trouble with the Richter Hommage is that the sound is too hideous above mezzo forte for it to be of interest except to Richterites. You can hear at the beginning that he has a control of the sculpted line which is beyond Thiollier’s ken, but he plays the second page like a Czerny study and doesn’t seem very much in sympathy with the piece.

Though uneven, the Thiollier cycle is nevertheless a considerable achievement, and I say that without regard for the price. The high points are Volume 1 – he has a magical way with some of the early works – and Volume 4, where the Préludes bring out the best in him. To this I would add Volume 2 which includes some pieces not present in every survey. But with the minor exception of Masques, he is acceptable-to-good throughout.

Christopher Howell

Earlier reviews of this series:

Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4


In order to make a positive identification I sought at least five points in each piece where the performance had a particular idiosyncrasy which even the same pianist would be unlikely to repeat in exactly the same way between two performances. These often involves points where Thollier is at variance with Debussy’s markings. Other pianists would obey them or disobey them in their own personal manner.

Hommage à Haydn

Bar 3. Debussy’s diminuendo is replaced by a sudden pianissimo and a slight rallentando.

Bars 9-10. A slight impulsive hurrying of the melodic line as it rises from A to D.

Bar 14. Pedal removed on third beat rather than second as implied by Debussy’s rests.

Bars 16-19. Thiollier’s way of slightly delaying the first chord of each bar is a fairly personal feature, easily recognized.

Bar 18. The G of the RH chord on the second beat disturbs the melodic line.

Bar 53. Debussy writes “dim. molto” after the F major chord, which is logically still forte and the climax of the phrase. Thiollier plays the F major chord as a sudden piano.

Bar 77. The LH C sharps are given a considerable expressive tenuto.

Bars 114-115. Debussy marks a crescendo (starting from piano) in bar 114 and a sudden fall back to piano at the beginning of bar 115. Thiollier interprets the crescendo as a diminuendo and the sudden piano as an accent.

D’un cahier d’esquisses

Bar 1. The F in the first melodic phrase is too heavily played for its context (the same phrase is well managed in bar 4).

Bar 4. The pedal is removed during the rest with an ugly swish. This could have been edited out fairly easily if Barrington-Coupe had felt like it!

Bars 6-10. Perhaps not conclusive, but Thiollier has hands large enough to encompass all the tenth stretches, while quite a few pianists would have to split some of them.

Bar 29. The last chord in the bar is played too soon, distorting the rhythmic shape.

Bar 43. The pedal is cleared on the D with a pause above it. There is then another nasty swish when the D is released.

Bar 44. The pedal is kept from the previous bar and held through this bar. Quite a lot of pianists would feel Debussy’s rests in the upper staves are an indication to change it. 


I had hoped not to have to write a full report on this negative match. There is always the danger that I’ll have to write at least thirty more before the real source is found. I realize it would be ever so much better if I could at the same time produce a recording that is so obviously the source that all opposition would be dropped, but since there is still insistence in some quarters that Thiollier is the “Hatto” source, here we go. It’s necessarily very technical, but these points are for me as decisive as any wave-patterns and I am sure they will be for any other pianist.

I made my first comparisons without a score. The points I noted were all similar to those below, but I should find it hard to describe them without reference to a score. Incredibly, Milan’s most famous music store was out of Book 1 (nos. 1-6) in any edition. However, since my score-reading has confirmed without a doubt that no Etude in Book 2 (nos. 7-12) is derived from Thiollier, perhaps this is sufficient.

For each study I sought at least five variant points in the opening page or two which I am convinced could not have been produced by the heaviest doctoring, probably not even by an individual intervention on every single note. If anyone still disagrees, I really think the onus is on them to describe the technical means by which such variants can be produced.

Etude 7

Bars 1-2: Quavers/8th notes played lightly by Thiollier and allowed to vibrate (Debussy’s staccato not observed) by the pedal. These same quavers/8th notes are played by “Hatto” as a sharp, dry staccato, further emphasized by slightly delaying the group of 32nd notes, producing a quasi-dotted effect. Thiollier’s rhythms are more even.

Bar 2. Thiollier does not differentiate between the 8th note at the beginning of this bar, which has an accent as well as a staccato dot – he ignores staccatos and accents alike. “Hatto” interprets the accent by allowing it to resonate for half the bar.

Bar 9. The return to forte after the diminuendo in the previous bar is brought out by Thiollier with an accent. The change barely registers with “Hatto”.

Bar 11. Thollier marks the entry of the first melodic phrase in the piece with a notable expressive hesitation. “Hatto” scarcely makes any at all.

Bar 21. Debussy’s marking is “rinforzando”. Thiollier makes another of his expressive commas and begins “più piano”. “Hatto” makes no hesitation and strengthens the tone as requested.

Etude 8

Bar 1. Taking his cue from Debussy’s long-held bass-note, Thiollier pedals right through the bar. “Hatto” pedals cleanly, even at the cost of losing the bass-note.

Bar 2. “Hatto” reacts to Debussy’s staccato dots on the upper note in each group by giving each one an accent. Thiollier offers no interpretation of the staccato dots at all – the upper notes are all but lost in the general mix of sound.

Bar 6. “Hatto” holds the pedal till the end of the bar, then lifts it to allow us to hear the D flat resonating on its own before starting the upward scale. Thiollier removes the pedal during the first of the two repeated D flats, about halfway through the bar.

Bar 9. “Hatto” brings out the inner part with bell-like clarity, Thiollier does not allow it to stand out from the texture.

Bar 10. “Hatto” removes the pedal at the half bar, allowing the fourth-based chord to emerge from the texture and resonate by itself before the music continues. Thiollier pedals through all this.

Bar 15. The D and C grace notes in the second half of the bar are not played by “Hatto”. Thiollier plays them.

Etude 9

Bars 2, 5, 6, 7. The rests are carefully observed by “Hatto”. Thiollier pedals through them.

Bar 10. Thiollier makes a little rallentando in the second half of the bar, “Hatto” does not.

Bar 12. Thiollier makes a little expressive hesitation before this bar, “Hatto” plays it straight.

Bar 17. Again, Thiollier makes a comma before the bar, “Hatto” does not. Thiollier plays this bar below tempo, “Hatto” keeps going.

Bar 23. “Hatto” makes a sharp unmarked accent at the beginning of this bar, Thiollier does not.

Bar 28. For once “Hatto” over-pedals, clouding the chromatic line which is clearer in Thiollier.

Bar 31. Thiollier begins the bar with an expressive tenuto, “Hatto” is straighter.

Etude 10

Bar 3. “Hatto” clears the pedal at the beginning of this bar, also at the beginning of b. 4. Thiollier pedals right through from the beginning to the third beat of b.4.

Bar 6. “Hatto” removes the pedal very gradually and makes a considerable pause before continuing. Thiollier removes the pedal rather more clumsily, with a swish, and continues immediately.

Bar 9. In “Hatto” the tolling A flat is made to sound part of the melodic line. Thiollier makes the two “sonorités opposées” quite distinct from one another.

Bar 13. “Hatto” clears the pedal at the beginning of this bar, Thiollier keeps his foot firmly down to the end of the bar.

Bar 15 onwards. This passage is much harder than it sounds because the hands are crossed. With Thiollier the melodic line seems to be the in the middle of the texture, the lower note in the left hand, while the moving 8th notes dominate. Thiollier’s LH chords are sometimes not quite together, but “Hatto” slightly arpeggiates the LH chords and by this means succeeds in getting the upper note to sing as the melody line.

Bar 30. Thiollier changes the pedal on the second beat, “Hatto” on the third.

Etude 11

Bar 1. “Hatto”, here and in bar 4, gives a certain emphasis to the third note in each group. In the first bar the F sticks out in Thiollier’s performance almost as if accented, while bar 4 is managed more evenly.

Bar 3. Thiollier makes a rallentando on the third beat and the F in the right hand on this third beat is given an almost melodic weight. “Hatto” make no rallentando and her F does not stand out from the texture.

Bar 9. “Hatto” clears the pedal on the final 8th note of the bar, Thiollier keeps his foot down.

Bars 12-13. Thiollier has a soft, sinuous approach to this passage, “Hatto” is more robust, with no half-lights to be seen. Could knob-twiddling do this?

Bar 15. Thiollier plays the E flat at the beginning of the second beat more strongly than that at the beginning of the first. “Hatto” has them about the same.

Bar 16. “Hatto” has an expressive “tenuto” on the first note of this bar. For once Thiollier is the more literal here.

Etude 12

Bars 11-14. Thiollier makes an unmarked rallentando, “Hatto” does not. In addition, “Hatto” reacts to Debussy’s “più dim” with a slight crescendo, which Thiollier does not.

Bars 15-17. Thiollier suddenly uses a lot of pedal to tease out a legato melodic line. “Hatto” uses a little more pedal than before but still keeps the second 8th note of each pair staccato.

Bar 27. Thollier emphasises the left hand B flats, for “Hatto” the melodic interest is in the right hand chords.

Bar 39 onwards. Debussy has marked the chords in pairs. “Hatto” makes this very clear, making a legato tie between the first and second chords, with the second clearly staccato. Thiollier makes a token attempt at the beginning, then plays the whole passage legato making it sound rather mysterious.

Bars 51-53 (Ritenuto ma con fuoco). “Hatto” either plays these chords without pedal or with a vibrato pedal that keeps them completely clear. Thiollier surrounds the whole passage with a cloud of pedal.

Bars 64 and 66. Thiollier has a jabbing accent on the beginning of these two bars, “Hatto” none.





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