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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Music - Volume 3
Préludes – Book 2 (1913) [37:57]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [03:38]
Pièce pur l’oeuvre du “Vêtement du blessé” (1915) [01:11]
Elégie (1915) [01:54]
La Boîte à joujoux (1913) [33:04]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
rec. 27-28 June 2004 (Boîte), 21-24 July 2005 (others)
BIS CD-1355 [79:37]

I first became acquainted with Ogawa’s Debussy when making comparisons with the second volume in Bavouzet’s ongoing cycle on Chandos. I was greatly impressed by her natural fluency and musicality in the pieces on her Volume 1. I was also sure that a lot more work had gone into creating this apparent naturalness than it might seem.
The most recent volume bears this out. Between four and five years have elapsed since the first and the pianistic control has now become superfine. I remarked that Bavouzet’s command of nuance and texture was exceptional, implicitly suggesting that Ogawa’s was merely very good. In terms of the subtlest shading, colouring and balance she is now equal to anyone who has recorded this repertoire. The absolute precision with which every single one of Debussy’s detailed dynamic markings is observed is remarkable. At the other end of the scale her pianistic address in “Feux d’artifice” yields nothing to Bavouzet, whose first volume contained both books of “Préludes”.
Has this patient honing of her art resulted in any loss of spontaneity? I occasionally wondered about this in the earlier stages of the “Préludes”, but whenever I found myself entertaining such a thought, along came something so lovely, and so natural-sounding, that I felt a little ungrateful. Bavouzet’s insights are considerable – though his Book 2 was better than his Book 1 – but they sometimes draw attention to themselves. I could prefer his more mercurial “Les Fées sont d’esquises danseuses” and “Ondine”. This, though, could also depend on my mood at the moment – in my original review I found Bavouzet’s “Fées” excessively demonic. I found more cheeky humour in Ogawa’s “Mr. Pickwick” and she reveals better the sad poetry underlying “Les tierces alternées”.
Another artist I compared was Monique Haas, whose Debussy and Ravel recordings from the LP era have been reissued as a 6-CD set by Erato (2564 69967-2). I expect to complete my review of this shortly. Haas displays all the virtues of classic French pianism. She can occasionally be straightforward and unfussy to a fault, though this worried me more in her first book of Préludes than her second. She can also rise to a challenge. Two of the Préludes which demand the utmost in concentration and a rising sense of mystery over a long span are “La terrasse des audience du clair de lune” – proto-Messiaen – and “Canopes”. Fine though both Ogawa and Bavouzet are here, Haas surpasses them in sheer potency of atmosphere.
This brings us back to the problem I find myself raising every time a recording of these inexhaustible pieces comes up for review. There will never be a single set containing the best version of each Prélude, and the real Debussy lover will need to get all those that contain at least some supreme performances. Ogawa is certainly among them.
Of the three pieces written during the First World War, Ogawa plays the “Berceuse héroïque” with a sense of numbed sorrow. She keeps the textures dry, almost Prokofief-like. Haas and Thiollier inject more overt passion into it. To my ears this is a case where less means more. In support of Ogawa is Debussy’s own description of the piece as “melancholy, reticent”.
Though the other two pieces were published during the 1930s they tended to remain outside the official canon of his works. The earlier LP surveys, including Haas’s, did not include them. Differences between Ogawa and Thiollier (Naxos Vol. 5) in the “Elégie” are small. In the “Pièce pour l’oeuvre du ‘Vêtement du blessé’”, Ogawa maintains the wartime mood of numbed sadness, suggesting a wispy memory of a waltz, or perhaps of a Satie “Gymnopédie”. Thiollier’s performance – rather confusingly, the piece is called “Page d’Album” on his disc – treats it as a nostalgic evocation of the Parisian salons of Debussy’s early years. I find it incredible that such a tiny piece can support two totally different yet equally convincing interpretations.
The piano score of the children’s ballet “La Boîte à joujoux” was published in 1913. Debussy immediately began to orchestrate it, but it was still incomplete at the time of his death. The first performance took place posthumously in 1919, with the orchestration completed by André Caplet. In view of the fact that the work was clearly conceived orchestrally, the piano version, though Debussy’s own, has never been considered “canonic”. It was not included by Haas, let alone Gieseking or other early cycles. The recent Austbø cycle did not include it; nor will, apparently, the Bavouzet cycle-in-progress. The only other version I know is that by Thiollier (Naxos Vol. 2) though I see that Ciccolini, at least, included it.
Neither the orchestral version – in Ansermet’s well-regarded performance – nor Thiollier’s excellent piano account have ever done a great deal for me. Ogawa held me spellbound. She truly “orchestrates” the music. With Thiollier, well as he plays, it is a single instrument producing all the sounds. Ogawa creates an almost multi-dimensional illusion. Each musical idea seems to come from a different instrument. Her characterization is so vivid, furthermore, that all the different toys appear to come alive before our eyes. At the end of the Third Tableau she makes the love music for the Soldier and the Doll infinitely touching. Both on the pianistic level and on that of total identification with the music, this is consummate artistry. I wondered at first whether I needed to add anything to the glowing review of this disc by John France. When I heard the ballet score I thought he might have gone overboard a whole lot more!
No Debussy collection can afford to miss this “Boîte à joujoux”. And however many versions of the “Préludes” you may have, I don’t think you’ll regret adding this one.
Christopher Howell

see also review by John France 


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