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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Works Vol. 1

Suite bergamasque (1890 rev. 1905) [16:31]
Nocturne (1890) [06:38]
Danse bohémienne (1880) [02:10]
Rêverie (1890) [04:19]
Mazurka (1891) [03:04]
Deux Arabesques (1888) [08:35]
Valse romantique (1890) [03:27]
Ballade (1890) [06:20]
Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) (1890) [05:10]
Suite: Pour le piano (1901) [12:09]
François-Joël Thiollier (piano)
rec. 28 November-1 December 1994, Temple Saint Marcel, Paris
NAXOS 8.553290 [70:57]



The Debussy cycle by the Franco-American pianist François-Joël Thiollier has been around since 1995. I am reviewing it now because I requested a copy of the disc containing the Etudes to compare with the version allegedly by Joyce Hatto, which I had reviewed and chosen as a "Best of the Year", and which is reported to have been at least partly lifted from Thiollier. Naxos has kindly added to my workload by sending the entire cycle. Since Thiollier is a real pianist who has taken the trouble to learn all this music and set it down, it seems right not to make a bee-line for the Etudes but to examine his Debussy properly starting at the beginning.

This first volume gathers together all the piano music Debussy wrote before the turn of the century, from the Danse bohémienne of 1880 to the group of short pieces officially dated 1890 but probably written somewhat earlier. The Suite bergamasque is also officially dated 1890 but acquired new material between then and its publication in 1905. The Suite Pour le piano takes us to the dawn of the new century while containing a movement – the Sarabande – dating from several years earlier. Although the piano was Debussy’s own instrument, he found his impressionist voice much earlier in his orchestral works. The "Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune" had created a furore in 1894, but nothing pianistically comparable appeared until the Estampes of 1903. Pianistic impressionism is generally considered to have begun with Ravel’s Jeux d’eau of 1901. Pour le piano finds Debussy exploring the neo-classical vein that was to re-emerge in his last years. For the rest, the music on this disc evokes, often very beautifully, the world of the French salon. Three pieces here, Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque and the two Arabesques, have nonetheless remained among the composer’s most popular.

Only very recently I was reviewing the second volume of Pascal Rogé’s new cycle on Onyx. I had no comparison recording for the Suite bergamasque but I had the idea that I would have liked it all a shade faster. If the approach is to be a classical one, I still hold by that. Thiollier is slower in the Prélude but I loved him. He’s very free, speeding up and slowing down, or delaying chords with an elasticity which almost reminded me of Cyril Scott playing his own music. It could be awful but somehow there is a magic to his timing that makes it all work. The piano sound, recorded in a church, is not ideal but it is soft edged with a sort of veiled beauty which may knock off some of the brilliance but makes Clair de lune truly ravishing. Frankly, Rogé sounds rather plain in comparison with Thiollier’s truly inspired flights. And Thiollier convinces me, at last, that Clair de lune fits into this Suite.

I am equally enthusiastic about all the pieces which may be called rhapsodic in nature – the Nocturne, the Rêverie, the Arabesques and the Ballade. I remarked that in this latter Rogé emphasized rather than disguised the way it is constructed in two-bar units. Thiollier takes great liberties with the timing, but he succeeds in covering the seams. I thought this a particularly inspired performance.

The first Arabesque could hardly be more different from the much quicker, upfront version purporting to be by Joyce Hatto. This has been identified, it seems, as from Rogé’s earlier Decca cycle. If so, I prefer his earlier self, while Thiollier’s alternative is ravishing. I listened very carefully to the second Arabesque since the "Hatto" hasn’t been identified. The actual views are not dissimilar but "Hatto" is stricter, sharper in rhythmic profile while Thiollier is freer. So no match.

Where I have a few problems is in the dance-oriented pieces. The Danse bohémienne is fine, but the Mazurka and Valse romantique really do seem to fall apart without a constant rhythmic pulse behind them. The Tarantelle styrienne is better. All the same, this is the only piece where I had a Gieseking comparison and he creates even more excitement by just playing it straight though with immense verve.

In the neo-classical Pour le piano Thiollier is stricter than elsewhere, though this does not prevent him from achieving some orgiastic climaxes in the outer movements which reminded me of Munch’s orchestral Debussy.

I am fascinated to see where all this leads as Thiollier gets on to mature Debussy. In spite of two or three failures, the inevitable result perhaps of a refusal to play safe, he has brought the composer’s early efforts to life wonderfully. I was left thinking of Julius Katchen’s way with Brahms: free-spirited, intensely personal yet mostly succeeding because of his empathy with the composer. At his price you shouldn’t miss it.

Christopher Howell

 


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