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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete Works for Piano, Volume 1
Préludes, Book 1 (1910) [38:57]
Préludes, Book 2 (1913) [38:36]
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) [02:11]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 6-8 November 2006, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10421 [79:44]


This actually arrived while I was dealing with the Tateno (misattributed to Hatto) recording and also reminding myself of the Thiollier. For a while I included Bavouzet in the comparisons but then I realized I would have to listen to him separately on his own terms. I noted that in the matter of actual pianistic control – I am referring here to refinement of nuance, not mere digital dexterity – he was superior to either of the others. But I have more than once expressed my belief that the faster tempi of Gieseking and Casadesus are closer to what Debussy wanted. Bavouzet is not the worst offender – he gets all the Préludes onto one CD with space for a tiny filler – but in a straight comparison I preferred the naturalness of Tateno and the volatility of Thiollier.

Perhaps I was unlucky in the ones I took for a three-way comparison. It’s true that Bavouzet is awfully slow in the opening “Danseuses de Delphes”, but here practically every pianist seems to want to assert his individuality by playing a different tempo from the written one. Or if, like Thiollier, he plays the written tempo, he invents dynamics of his own. Bavouzet plays a tempo of his own and invents dynamics of his own.

However, this proves not to be a blueprint for how he is going to continue. Before I really started to enjoy anything, though, I had to get used to another of his quirks, a frequent separation of the hands, at times extreme. I know people react differently to this. My feeling is, if he always separated his hands, I could eventually write it off mentally, like finding you’ve put on a pair of shoes that pinch your feet at every step, and you’ve just got to go through the day with them and try not to notice them too much. But as he sometimes but not always does it, I found myself quite distracted from the music and simply saying to myself as each new chord came up, “will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he …?” As time went on, though, he seemed to do it less, and I was very little disturbed by this quirk in Book 2.

Nevertheless, I soon found and appreciated that not all his tempi are slow. “Les sons et les parfums” has real volatility, I enjoyed the lilt of “Les collines d’Anacapri” and “Des pas sur le neige” is so wonderfully textured it certainly didn’t seem slow. In “La Cathédrale engloutie” he follows Debussy – as does Thiollier – in changing the basic beat from crotchet (fourth note) to minim (half-note) according to what feels right. His texture in the last two pages is a miracle of pianissimo control, but he seems to be holding back at the actual climax, so the piece as a whole comes out a little understated. In view of what he can achieve in this direction I was surprised to find the opening of “Ce qu’a vu” too loud so this piece, for the opposite reason to “Cathédrale”, also loses its full effect.

A mixed bag, then. But Book 2 told a different tale. I was pleased to find that “Brouillards” was not treated as a slow piece – it’s marked “Modéré” – and I thought it perfectly textured. “Feuilles mortes” is all the more effective for being really slow, especially as Bavouzet has such control of over its long, melancholy lines. Quite honestly, in this book my only real reservation concerned “Les fées”, who sounded demonic rather than exquisite dancers. In particular, I have never heard “La terrasse des audience” played better, a miracle of rapt wonder. The opening gestures of “Bruyères” and “M. Pickwick” are personalized in a way that may become tiresome with repeated hearings. But the inner joy of the later stages of the former and the zany humour of the latter are beautifully conveyed. “Ondine” is properly seductive, “Canope” brings another example of Bavouzet’s control over long pianissimo lines, “Les tierces alternées” has atmosphere as well as fluency – this was one of Tateno’s less effective offerings – and there is both colour and virtuosity to “Feux d’artifice”. As a bonus there’s a tiny piece which remained unknown until 2001, no mere curiosity but, as played by Bavouzet, full of poetry and atmosphere. It quotes from two of the “Préludes” so it is ideally placed here.

In the old days, when these pieces came on a separate LP for each book, the situation would have been clear; a very high recommendation for Book 2 but a suggestion to go elsewhere for Book 1. As it is, anyone who loves Debussy and collects multiple versions of his major works will not want to be without a disc which may contain some of the finest performances he has of several of the individual pieces, including most of Book 2. For a first time buyer, given the full price, I’m not sure if it’s worth paying any more than the Naxos price for Thiollier. But I look forward to the next volume in this series.

Christopher Howell 




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