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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete Works for Piano - Volume 3
Nocturne (1892) [5:44]
Suite bergamasque (1890-1905) [16:24]
Danse bohémienne (1880) [2:03]
Deux Arabesques (1890-1) [7:18]
Rêverie (c.1890) [4:22]
Mazurka (c.1890) [3:02]
Children’s Corner (1906-8) [15:44]
Hommage à Haydn (1909) [2:26]
Morceau de Concours (1904) [0:58]
La plus que lente (1910) [4:40]
The little Nigar (1909) [1:14]
Page d’Album (1915) [1:09]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [4:18]
Elégie (1915) [2:28]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 27-29 February 2008, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10467 [71:54]
Experience Classicsonline

The Debussy piano music situation continues to be one of tight-throat competition and considerable confusion for the buyer. Confusion because the plethora of possible couplings means that anybody who thinks to get a rounded view by dividing his Debussy between several pianists will end up with plentiful duplications and equally plentiful gaps. Monique Haas (only available as a boxed set, see review), Austbø (see review of vol. 3) and Thiollier (see review of vol. 1) have at least agreed in showing that all Debussy’s early pieces, up to “Pour le Piano”, will go neatly on one disc. Pascal Rogé’s new cycle is spreading the odds and ends around (see, for example, review of vol. 2). Bavouzet has a half-in-half solution. His third volume has the major work of the earliest period – the “Suite Bergamasque” – along with a fair number of the other shorter pieces contemporary with it. The remaining early pieces plus “Pour le piano” appeared in his second volume (see review). He then plays the major work from the period between the “Images” and the “Préludes” – “Children’s Corner” – followed by some of the single pieces written by Debussy from then to the end of his life. Others of these pieces were included in the second volume. In terms of listener-friendliness he has a point. Not all the juvenilia are especially interesting and a whole disc of them rather emphasizes the fact.   
I have already expressed the view that of recent cycles and those currently under way, Bavouzet’s and Noriko Ogawa’s – on BIS – strike me as the most important. While I am sure this is not intended, the order in which the volumes are coming out has made full comparison difficult. We still await the early pieces from Ogawa – though she has already picked up an early “Intermède” that has escaped everybody else – while her “Etudes” (vol. 4, which I hope to review shortly) have come out ahead of Bavouzet’s (recently announced for issue). We do have her versions of the pieces on the present CD from “Children’s Corner” onwards (vol. 2 - see review), though at first sight it may not seem so: a few of the recent discoveries appear under different names. But even when the cycles are finished, the two will not be comparable. Bavouzet’s four volumes will include all the original solo piano music. Ogawa has four volumes already and has covered “La Boîte à joujoux”, a ballet which Debussy left in piano score and never got round to orchestrating himself, and the solo-piano version of the “Six épigraphes antiques”, originally for piano duet. Thiollier has conveniently grouped these together on a cheap Naxos disc (see review of vol. 2), but Ogawa’s “Boîte” (see review of vol. 3) is really great pianism and was a revelation to me, while Thiollier is merely good. I haven’t heard Ogawa’s “Epigraphes” yet. So how does Bavouzet’s new volume add to the evolving situation?
Some high claims for Bavouzet have been advanced, suggesting his may the definitive cycle for our times. I admired his first two volumes without going quite that far (see reviews of vol. 1 & vol. 2). In the opening “Nocturne” here I queried his fussy pedal effect at the beginning and was quickly reminded that he has rather a habit of playing with his hands not quite together. Some of the rubato seemed to me excessive. But I did admire his ravishing textures and dynamic gradings. Looking around at the alternatives I found Monique Haas spelling out the music a little too deliberately, Thiollier dividing it up into two-bar units with his rubato, Austbø offering rubato similar to Bavouzet’s but with drier textures. So out of these four Bavouzet has to be the choice.
Much the same is to be said of the “Suite Bergamasque”. There’s a half-missing note in the first bar that ought to have been remade, but otherwise he illuminates the harmonic changes in the “Prélude” more naturally than the others. Austbø’s slightly faster, more chaste “Clair de lune” could be my ideal, not that Bavouzet is exactly steamy, but Bavouzet’s closing “Passepied” clinches it. I was recently praising Haas for her steady tempo here, a genuine “Allegretto ma non troppo”, and I should insist that all these comparative versions have been fully enjoyed in the context of the cycles or discs from which they come. However, “Allegretto” – meaning “a little Allegro” – is a mood as much as it is a tempo and I find Bavouzet’s gently tripping interpretation delightful and not at all hurried. By its side Haas seems didactic and the others nearer to Haas than to Bavouzet. Only Klara Kormendi, on a deleted Naxos disc (8.550252), has a tempo similar to Bavouzet’s but she makes it sound like a brittle toccata – her disc has some sensitive things elsewhere, I should say out of fairness.
But Bavouzet doesn’t have it all his own way. In the “Rêverie” his left-hand sounds like an accompaniment, albeit a ravishing one, while Haas gives it a life of its own, elevating the music by giving it a contrapuntal value it theoretically doesn’t have. In the “Mazurka” Bavouzet – and most others – fiddles around too much, losing the dance. This is expendable Debussy, but Haas with her unfussy rhythms makes the best of it.
From “Children’s Corner” the Ogawa comparisons begin. Bavouzet is very fluent in “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” – though the very opening is not quite clear and might have been remade. Ogawa is more imaginative, presenting the opening like a real exercise and then providing a much more detailed response to Debussy’s various marking. More than anyone since Gieseking, she plays the first bars of “Jimbo’s Lullaby” “un peu gauche”,  as Debussy asks, rather like a child picking out the tune on the keyboard. She is also a tad more bright-eyed in the “Serenade for the Doll”, where Bavouzet risks sounding too smart. Bavouzet’s treatment of the opening bar of “The Snow is Dancing” as a tempo-less recitative would surely be unacceptable in any context and what follows, as in “Doctor Gradus”, is just sufficiently fast to sound superficial. Ogawa’s snowflakes fall with a gentle evenness while her long notes toll through the texture to suggest a wonder-struck child gazing out of the window at the scene outside. Honours are even, I think, in “The little Shepherd”, while Bavouzet’s smoochy “Golliwogg’s cake walk” gets my vote – Ogawa fiddles around too much with the central section. Best of all is Haas, whose jaunty rhythms take on a life of their own and who shows that the Wagner quotations in the middle can sound quite funny enough just by playing what is written.
Haas is at her remarkable best all through “Children’s Corner”. It should be clear by now that each artist has his or her particular agenda. Since the music itself is greater than any one of them can play it, it follows that each of them reveals particular aspects of it supremely well, falling short in others. Haas’s agenda is to play the pieces for their inherently musical values, and let them be evocative if they will. Bavouzet delights in pianistic colours. He produces ravishing effects in the early salon pieces but proves slightly reductive in “Children’s Corner”. Ogawa excels in the pieces inspired by childhood, yet also hones in on the more modernistic aspects. How this will suit the earlier works we do not know as yet.
In “Hommage à Haydn”, Ogawa makes more of the staccato accompaniment to the opening section, suggesting a Satie “Gymnopèdie”. Bavouzet may be preferable in the faster sections. Ogawa finds just that little bit more variety in the “Morceau de Concours” (called “Pièce pour Piano” on her disc). She is very slow in “La plus que lente” but is nevertheless better at maintaining the impression of an intimate waltz – Bavouzet’s rubato loses this at times. Something odd happens in Bavouzet’s “The little Nigar”: the piece is short enough, yet one of its three pages is missing. Assuming this is not a deliberate cut by Bavouzet, it could be an editing mistake. Alternatively, since Roger Nichols’s notes tell us that the piece was originally one of forty by various composers published as part of a “Méthode élémentaire de Piano” by Théodore Lack, maybe Bavouzet is following this original publication. In which case the additional page, which simply repeats page two, would have been added – presumably with Debussy’s approval – to pad the piece out when it was issued separately. But even if this is so – couldn’t we have been told? – I feel that going back to the original is a pointless exercise: with such a tiny piece the extra thirty seconds would hurt nobody. The performances are about equal, with both artists pulling the secondary theme around more than I like.
In the remaining pieces I found Ogawa marginally more involving in her emphasis on their modernity rather than an impressionistic wash. But tomorrow I might feel the other way. They are both among the finest I’ve heard.
Altogether, I find this the best of Bavouzet’s three volumes so far. Further confirmation that his and Ogawa’s are two of the most significant cycles-in-progress.
Christopher Howell

see also review by Dan Morgan



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