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
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
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.