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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Music - Volume 4
12 Etudes (1915) [49:51]
Etude retrouvée (1915, realized by Ron Howat) [05:13]
Intermède (1880/82) [04:05]
6 Epigraphes antiques (1914/15) [19:07]
Les Soirs illuminés par l’arduer du charbon” (1917) [02:05]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
rec. July 2007, Nybrokajen 11 (the former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden
BIS BIS-CD-1655 [81:42]
Experience Classicsonline


I seem to have written rather often recently that, of recent and ongoing cycles of Debussy’s piano music, those by Noriko Ogawa and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet seem to me the most important. They continue to be issued in combinations and couplings that make straight comparisons difficult. Ogawa’s “Etudes” are appearing well in advance of Bavouzet’s even though, as a result of delays in writing this review, Bavouzet’s Volume 4, including the “Etudes”, has now been announced. Just to complicate matters even more, Bavouzet’s Volume 4 is his last – unless there has been a change of plan – while we still await a fifth CD from Ogawa which will group together the earlier pieces. The extra CD is certainly not due to short timings: look at the present one! Ogawa has included two major items not always considered part of the “canon”. One was the ballet “La Boîte à Joujoux”, which Debussy left in piano score, intending to orchestrate it, and of which she gave a really marvellous performance in her Vol. 3. Now she adds the “Six Epigraphes antiques”, first written by Debussy for piano duet and later reworked in a solo version. The three smaller works on the present CD, moreover, were discovered too late even for inclusion in Thiollier’s variable 6-CD cycle on Naxos, though Bavouzet gives us the “Etude retrouvée” and “Les Soirs illuminés”.

So what of Ogawa’s “Etudes”? Ogawa has consistently shown, throughout her cycle so far, an innate musicality combined with a translucent, delicate sound that nevertheless does not exclude power when required. She has always appeared technically at her ease. However, nothing else in Debussy makes the sort of fanatical technical demands that the “Etudes” consistently do, so it is pleasing, if not especially surprising, to report that the same naturalness and instinctive empathy with the music emerge unfazed by the stringent mechanical requirements. Indeed, while many performances of these pieces leave me wondering if Debussy’s meticulous and multifarious dynamic markings are not too fussy ever to be fully realized, I cannot say I noticed any markings in any of the 12 “Etudes” that Ogawa has ignored. This proves, I think, that her apparent simplicity and spontaneity are the result of far more sheer hard work than is apparent.

For comparisons I turned to Uchida and Rahkonen. The former (on Philips) won an award and much praise when it was new. The latter (on Finlandia) was one of my Records of the Year two years ago. Admittedly, I chose it believing the performances were the semi-miraculous issue of a terminally sick old lady, but on returning to them post-scandal I saw no reason to lessen my admiration for them. However, the Rahkonen disc remains unavailable – a bargain reissue would affect the competitive situation considerably – so for the moment I feel that both it and Uchida can now be considered superseded.

The differences can be summed up from the second “Etude”. Ogawa is flowing, caressing. Uchida is a little faster, occasionally ready to tear away impetuously. Rahkonen, at about the same tempo as Ogawa, is more upfront at the expense of sometimes playing too loudly.

Ogawa is a little more generous in her pedalling. In the section of no. 4 marked “au Mouvt, in poco agitato”, Uchida and Rakhonen have the right-hand sixths clear to the point of being brittle with (as far as I can tell) no pedal at all. The result sounds aggressive from the former, heavy from the latter. Ogawa surrounds them with a halo of pedal. This could be risky but her control of pedalling is superfine. Neither here nor anywhere else did I feel that the increased lustre and warmth produced by her added pedalling was accompanied by any attendant blurring.

At times the differences are minimal. It may seem niggling indeed to say that Uchida is too loud in bar 9 – and only in that bar – of no. 8, but that is the only point in the entire piece where I could see a preference between her and Ogawa. In general it may be said that Uchida is the more impetuous, with a tendency to ignore Debussy’s sudden drops to piano; Rahkonen is bold and assertive and may be enjoyed as such. She does, however, often mark up Debussy’s dynamics. But I wish to add that both Uchida and Rahkonen have some exquisite pianissimos as well. In short, I don’t think you could expect to hear these “Etudes” played more beautifully – and by that I mean “with a greater revelation of their beauty” – than they are by Ogawa.

I have seen the view expressed that Ogawa’s “Etudes” are very nicely played but ultimately unmemorable. I don’t really agree but I can see that there is also a place for a more questioning, modernist interpretation. Bavouzet may be the man. I should also like to hear Aimard, from the more recent versions.

The “Etude retrouvé” is not so much a first version of the eleventh “Etude” – “pour les Arpèges composés” – as a totally different piece addressing the same technical problem. It is more traditional in harmonic structure – I thought of Rachmaninov at times – and would have sat rather uneasily with its companions had it remained in place. Some listeners may like it all the more for that. Ogawa’s control of the different textural strands is exemplary.

The “Intermède” is actually an arrangement, possibly by Debussy himself, of a movement from an early Piano Trio. It seems to me more interesting as music than several of the “canonical” early works and is played by Ogawa with a fragrant elegance that bodes well for her forthcoming (I hope) recording of these.

Ogawa plays the rather strange, abstruse “Six Epigraphes antiques” with a sense of trance-like wonder. Thiollier is very slightly faster in all but one piece and seizes the opportunity for boldness when it is offered. You might feel he finds more variety. However, I suggest that, of the two, it is Ogawa with her semi-minimalist approach who has a precise overall view of the music, as opposed to interpreting it – very nicely – on a section-by-section basis. The return at the end of the last piece of the opening theme of the first has an “end-of-the-story” feeling from her while from Thiollier it just happens.

This “end-of-the-story” feeling also comes across in the recording by Jean-François Antonioli (Claves CD 50-9008). His tempi are faster still – except, also here, in one piece – and enough so to find a different overall character. The music emerges as lithe, balletic, almost neo-classical. I presume this 1990 CD has long since disappeared from view. If you can access it, this rather than Thiollier is the real alternative to Ogawa.

Lastly, the brief “Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon”, included by Bavouzet in his Volume 1. With Ogawa it is a final, sad visitation of the impressionist world, the sounds wafting gently through the air. Bavouzet finds more tension. I couldn’t choose between them.

Excellent notes and a recording that is not only very fine in itself but also totally attuned to Ogawa’s sound-world.

Christopher Howell

 


 


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