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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Music – Volume 1

Images – 1re Série (1905) [15:55]
Images – 2e Série (1907) [15:31]
Images (Oubliées) (1894) [14:09]
Estampes (1903) [14:52]
Masques (1904) [05:10]
L’isle joyeuse (1904) [06:00]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
rec. August 2000, Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden
BIS-CD-1105 [73 :28]

"Estampes" and the three sets of "Images" were issued as the work of Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist/Fidelio CACD

Experience Classicsonline

Though recorded over seven years ago, this is the first instalment of a Debussy cycle which has still only reached Volume 3 [Volume 4, based around the "Etudes", was set down in July 2007]. I made acquaintance with these performances while reviewing the second volume in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Chandos cycle. I have no disagreement at all with Terry Barfoot’s glowing review on this site, but since I find that Ogawa’s and Bavouzet’s are the most interesting of the several cycles currently under way or just completed, I should like to add my voice to the chorus of praise.

Apart from Bavouzet, my main comparison has been with Monique Haas, whose recordings of Debussy and Ravel have been gathered into a 6-CD set (Erato 2564 69967-2 review). Bavouzet has not yet recorded the "Images".

The record under discussion begins with the two books of "Images" – Debussy’s greatest mature masterpieces for piano before the astounding two books of "Préludes" – then doubles back to take in the "Images oubliées". These were not published by the composer – though a revised version of the central piece became the "Sarabande" in "Pour le piano" – and represent his first attempts to find an impressionistic style for the piano. Then follow the "Estampes", his first published pieces in an impressionistic style. The disc closes with two of the several single pieces written by Debussy between "Estampes" and "Images". Bavouzet had the bright idea of adding "… d’un cahier d’equisses" to these two to make a sort of unofficial extra book of "Images". Recitalists might bear this in mind.

Though the sequence looks a little odd on paper it works well. It also means that the disc couldn’t get off to a better start. The watery images flow from Ogawa’s fingers with complete fluency and naturalness and she is at her finest throughout this book. I suppose you might look at the pretty, smiling Oriental face on the booklet and think "well, she’s a natural for this sort of thing". However, her subtle gradation of dynamics and control of the most teeming textures suggests that a lot of work went into making it all sound so easy. At the first forte in "Mouvement", for example, she notes that the theme in parallel fifths has a diminuendo marked in its second bar, and again two bars later in the left hand, whereas when it reappears a few seconds later there is no diminuendo. Haas plays it the same way both times. Just after this, Ogawa lets us hear clearly the long Cs in the right-hand thumb. These are the sort of details that need to be painstakingly worked out, and obviously have been.

Haas is disappointing in "Mouvement". Her way of treating toccata-like pieces on a purely musical basis, letting the images create themselves, is highly effective in "Jardins sous la pluie", the last of the "Estampes". Here it produces laboured results. On the other hand she is very fine in the other two pieces in this book, so I am left to pick on niggly little details to explain why I still ever so slightly prefer Ogawa. Perhaps it is a matter of the recording, but in "Reflets dans l’eau" Haas is sometimes too full-toned. And it is not a matter of the recording that a few times in "Hommage à Rameau" the removal of the pedal after a pause results in a downward swish of tonality in the Haas performance. It’s difficult to prevent this entirely in a concert, but in a studio it might have warranted a re-take.

On the other hand, Haas is at her finest and most imaginative in the second book of "Images". Each musical line in "Cloches à travers les feuilles" emerges as a separate strand of bells and each is pitted – if gently – against the other. It is a fascinating display of quiet yet crystalline sonorities. Richter – who often played this as an encore but wouldn’t touch the other two "Images" of Book 2 – gave each set of bells its specific distance. With him we seem to hear a valley full of chimes gently wafting through the evening air. Ogawa perhaps makes the mistaken assumption that this is another "watery" piece. Pleasant as it is, to hear it alongside the other two is to realize that there is an essential toughness to this music which needs bringing out.

Haas is over a minute faster than Ogawa in "Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût". That in itself does not prove anything, but her landscape, while remaining suitably blanched, has more happening in it. Ogawa’s comes perilously close to immobility.

Ogawa is not alone in her leisurely view of "Poissons d’or" and later on the goldfish dart around their tub to good effect. Overall, though, they sound a bit lazy. Haas’s opening is practically unpedalled; a daring effect which produces an incredible shimmering iridescence. Without being much faster, her fish cavort and play with cheeky good humour. The central section, with its "blue" notes, properly emerges as a bilious waltz. Haas was truly inspired that day.

The "Images oubliées" were still unpublished when Haas recorded her Debussy. Bavouzet is more intense than Ogawa in the second piece and more upfront in the third. This does not necessarily make him better, since Ogawa’s wistful poetry in the "Souvenir du Louvre" and her sense of open-eyed wonder in "Quelques aspects" are at least as rewarding.

Taken on its own, I found Haas’s concentration on musical values in "Estampes" close to perfection. After making comparisons though, I realize that both Bavouzet and Ogawa find even more in the music. Bavouzet’s Spain is a place of naked passion and dazzling colours, arguably spotlit by the noonday sun, while his gardens are traversed by storms rather than gentle rain. While this demands to be heard, my preference is for Ogawa. The dances of Grenada waft in and out of our perception on the evening air and the gardens provide a kaleidoscope of colour under the persistently beating rain.

Bavouzet is brilliant in "Masques" but Ogawa provides a minor revelation. She finds shadows and mystery while not holding back when the revellers are revealed close up. On the other hand, Bavouzet provides the necessary overall sweep in the relatively extended "L’isle joyeuse" which Ogawa misses, in spite of much poetry along the way.

As I find myself saying every time I review a disc of Debussy, there will never be a "best" version. Every fine cycle will have a smattering of supreme performances and a few slightly disappointing ones. This first instalment of a cycle which I sincerely hope will be completed one day should be collected by all Debussy enthusiasts who have so far missed out on it.

Christopher Howell


As recorded above, the larger part of this disc was conscripted into the "Hatto" catalogue. It was not sent to MusicWeb for review, so those interested in what was done are referred to Farhan Malik’s wavefile analysis. I limit myself to remarking here that the choice was a strange one. For one thing, Ogawa has achieved a considerable following in the UK and spends much of her time there, unlike the other principal "Hatto" Debussy players, Tateno and Rahkonen, whose names and discs were virtually unknown factors, never reviewed in Gramophone, for example, and difficult to obtain. The risk of discovery must have been considerable. A fairly consistent feature of the Hatto scandal, at last as regards solo repertoire, was the avoidance of artists well-known locally.

Furthermore, after choosing Tateno’s "Préludes", which offer a sort of "golden mean" standard of interpretation, and Rahkonen’s alert and often upfront, breezy "Etudes", what were "Hatto" fans expected to make of Ogawa’s gentle poetry? Perhaps we err once again in looking for logic in a sorry affair that has none.

Maybe it was a "dare" by a couple growing tired of "playing it safe". In the event this was one of the last "Hatto" discs to come out before the scandal broke. It had very limited circulation and no reviews at all – or even newsgroup comment – as far as I am aware.


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