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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete Works for Piano - Volume 2
Ballade (Ballade slave) (c.1890/1903) [06:11]
Valse romantique (c.1890) [03:14]
Danse (Tarentelle styrienne) (c.1890/1903) [04:36]
Images (oubliées) (1894) [11:50]
Estampes (1903) [13:09]
Pour le piano (1894-1901) [11:50]
Masques (1903-4) [04:14]
L’isle joyeuse (1903-4) [05:28]
… D’un cahier d’esquisses (1903) [04:25]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 12-14 July 2007, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN10443 [65:49]


Complete Debussy piano music cycles come with a plethora of couplings, ensuring that the listener who likes to pick and choose among pianists will either have to get each cycle complete or have half the repertoire duplicated and the other half missing.

Never mind, the programme elected by Bavouzet as a follow-up to the Préludes which occupied Volume 1 is extremely intelligent in its planning. It is based entirely on triptychs, whether so designed by the composer or whether grouped together as such here. He opens with a choice of three of the early pieces and concludes with three of the mature essays written between “Estampes” and “Images”, thereby creating a sort of additional set of “Images oubliées”, this time ones the composer forgot to collect into a set.

The centrepiece is “Estampes”, the cycle in which Debussy first discovered his impressionistic style of piano writing. Framing it are two other triptychs, showing the two directions in which he was heading in the years between the sweet salon-style offerings that open the disc and “Estampes”. The “Images oubliées” were published only in 1978. Though the central piece was later revised as the Sarabande in “Pour le piano”, the others show him experimenting with pianistic impressionism rather earlier than he was credited for. Ravel claimed to have established pianistic impressionism with his “Jeux d’eaux” (1901), and as far as Debussy’s published works are concerned he was perfectly correct, since “Pour le piano” suggests a neo-classical development to which Debussy returned only much later.

Bavouzet has a remarkable tonal control and range of sonority. He delicately orchestrates the opening “Ballade” and from this point of view the performance could hardly be bettered. His rubato, however, emphasizes rather than disguises the fact that the piece consists almost entirely of four-bar phrases and it emerges rather segmented. The more classically disciplined Monique Haas may seem relatively plain on a bar-to-bar basis, but she provides the continuity which is lacking in Bavouzet. I would add that, when I heard Haas on her own, I did not note any lack of tonal palette.

Since my comparisons will frequently include Haas, I should say at this point that her Debussy and Ravel recordings have been collected into a 6-CD set (Erato 2564 69967-2). This has been on my reviewing pile for some time and I expect to complete my report shortly.

The “Ballade” is the only piece on the disc with this sort of constructional shortcoming and I did not feel anywhere else that Bavouzet was overdoing the rubato. Indeed, his gentle lilt and delicate colouring get the very best out of the “Valse romantique”. Other pianists have made a nice job of it, particularly Haas, but no one, until now, has quite persuaded me that it’s really worth bothering with unless you’ve been booked to do all Debussy.

Debussy’s marking for the “Danse” is “Allegretto”. Haas’s fundamentally disciplined approach means that she would not think of marking up a written tempo for the sake of effect. Her steady yet lively, good-humoured performance is surely what Debussy intended. The great Walter Gieseking clearly felt that the music wasn’t interesting enough at a relaxed tempo and took it a good deal faster. Unfortunately, the great Walter Gieseking learnt some of the minor pieces in the cycle specially for the recording, to somewhat rough and ready effect. If you want the faster tempo Bavouzet is your man, beautifully controlled and with a coursing energy, but no sense of haste.

When Haas set down her cycle, the “Images oubliées” were still languishing in manuscript so, as with Gieseking and other “canonical” cycles, she didn’t include them. I made my comparison with another cycle-in-progress, though one that’s taking an awfully long time, that by Noriko Ogawa (BIS). Ogawa’s special quality is her gentle fluency, which allows the music to waft along in a manner that is unfailingly attractive. There are no great differences between the two in the first piece, but the second finds Bavouzet taking a considerably faster tempo. His performance has a fine intensity while Ogawa, by allowing herself and us time to savour the music fully, possibly gives it more meaning. In the last piece Bavouzet is brilliant and humorous while Ogawa has a sense of open-eyed wonder at the colours of nature. It is good to have two equally convincing performances of this once-rare cycle.

In the first piece of “Estampes”, “Pagodes”, Bavouzet is fairly impulsive, not as much as Gieseking whose volatility few have risked imitating, but rather on the same lines. His Spain is full of strong passions and bright colours. Difficult to resist, yet arguably he has marked up some of the dynamics. His “piano expressif” in the passage marked “Tempo rubato”, for example, strikes me as mezzo forte at least. I can’t help feeling that this is Grenada under the noonday summer sun rather than in the evening. Likewise in the last piece his gardens seem to be the subject of a full-scale thunderstorm rather than gentle rain. It’s stunningly imaginative playing but in the last resort the softer-edged Ogawa gets my vote.

One might allow her a certain right to know what Pagodas are like, and they shimmer in iridescent colours in her unhurried hands. The sounds of the Grenada evening waft in and out of earshot while the rain patters and drips without succumbing to tropical violence. Both pianists know better than to interrupt the even movement of the raindrops throughout the piece, as did Pascal Rogé in his recent recording (Onyx).

Haas has an interesting approach to “Jardins sous la pluie”. True to her classical ideals, she doesn’t deliberately evoke pictorial images. She simply plays the piece as a toccata, the idea being apparently to concentrate on the music and let it sound like gardens under the rain if it will. Being Debussy, it does. I must say that when I listened to Haas’s disc for its own sake, her “Estampes” seemed to me very close to perfection. Now I have made these comparisons I realize that both Bavouzet and Ogawa get a little more out of the music.

Ogawa has not recorded “Pour le piano” yet. Bavouzet is well-attuned to the crisp neo-classical style. So, predictably, is Haas. I find it hard to choose between them and was slightly surprised to see that Bavouzet has shorter timings in all three movements, since they sounded remarkably similar.

Bavouzet is certainly “Très vif et fantasque” in “Masques”. It’s a brilliant display – by the side of which Haas seems a little plain – and you may think that’s enough for this piece. Roger Nichols’ notes comment that “if there are hidden things in this work, they have yet to be unearthed”. I suggest that Ogawa has unearthed some of them. Her opening is more distant and she finds shadows and mystery while not holding back when the revellers are present before our eyes. This is outstanding.

On the other hand, the same differences work the other way in “L’isle joyeuse”. Bavouzet has the irresistible sweep necessary to bind this relatively long – by Debussy’s standards – piece together. By remaining jaunty to the end he avoids the suspicion that Debussy is trying to write a finale à la Rachmaninov. Ogawa doesn’t entirely avoid this. Elsewhere she has plenty of poetry but this is one Debussy work that thrives on high octane – as Horowitz showed. Haas’s concentration on musical values seems to fall short in the same way.

On the other hand, Haas plays “Cahier” with exceptional poetry, revealing a side of herself she sometimes prefers to keep in abeyance. Bavouzet is at his poetic best too, and I couldn’t choose between them. Ogawa has recorded this, but it’s in her Volume 2 which I don’t have.

I think there will never be a “best” version of this inexhaustible music. Each new cycle seems to reveal something new. The cycles in progress by Bavouzet and Ogawa seem to me of outstanding interest. This latest volume has a couple of supreme performances, “Valse romantique” and “L’isle joyeuse”, several more that are equal to the best and none that are not worth hearing. Having been a little circumspect over his Volume 1, I am delighted to state that am greatly looking forward to the next instalment. I discovered Ogawa while making these comparisons and hope to comment further. I am wondering, though, if I need add to the praise already given on this site to her Volume 1 and Volume 3 by Terry Barfoot and John France respectively. Slightly less interesting, to judge from the samples I’ve heard, are the surveys by Austbø (Simax, recently completed) and Rogé (Onyx, his second cycle, see link above). Thiollier’s Naxos cycle has a number of fine performances but this hardly seems the moment to list them since, of the pieces on Bavouzet’s Volume 2, only the Ballade shows him at his best.

Christopher Howell




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