Claude Achille DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Douze Études
Étude 1, ‘pour les cinq doigts d’après Monsieur Czerny’ [3:33]
Étude 2, ‘pour les tierces’ [4:14]
Étude 3, ‘pour les quartes’ [6:43]
Étude 4, ‘pour les sixes’ [4:45]
Étude 5, ‘pour les octaves’ [3:02]
Étude 6, ‘pour les huit doigts’ [1:45]
Étude 7, ‘pour les degrés chromatiques’ [2:29]
Étude 8, ‘pour les agréments’ [6:12]
Étude 9, ‘pour les notes répétées’ [3:44]
Étude 10, ‘pour les sonorités opposés’ [7:26]
Étude 11, ‘pour les arpèges composés’ [5:00]
Étude 12, ‘pour les accords’ [5:11]
Pascal Rogé (piano)
rec. Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 16-17 July 2009 and 4-5 March 2010.
ONYX 4056 [54:23]

Claude Debussy was one of the most influential composers of all time. He along with his countryman Maurice Ravel came to represent the apex of what is known as Impressionism, a term that Debussy himself despised. He would influence generations of French composers, and his piano music has become some of the most loved in the repertoire mainly due to its dream-like quality and its exotic harmonic language.

The Études are Debussy’s last significant contribution to the piano literature. Published in 1915, they came about after a rather lengthy fallow period during which the First World War, the death of his mother, and the onset of the cancer that would later take his life were the predominant concerns in his life. Modeled after the 27 Etudes of Frederic Chopin, each piece is intended to tackle a rather specific technical challenge. The original editions appeared in two books, the first of which dealt with finger dexterity, such as the playing of octaves, thirds and fifths. The second book addressed issues of playing rapid scales and other melodic patterns. Although Debussy had a pedagogical intent, these pieces stand alone as works of art, and if they are more challenging to listen to than perhaps the Preludes or the Suite Bergamasque, they still function well as concert pieces.

Pascal Rogé has long been recognized as one of the foremost interpreters of twentieth century French music. His recordings on Decca from some decades ago have been somewhat of a gold standard where this music is concerned. Now he revisits his canon in a new set of recordings for Onyx, a label which has managed to capture some very major talent from the ashes of the so-called ‘major labels’ who continue to repackage their back catalogue and churn out endless star driven recitals and cross-over dreck. Gil Shaham and James Ehnes are two other stars who have made some masterful recordings for Onyx.

Rogé is to be most admired for his understated virtuosity. There is never any doubt that this man can play every note of even the most demanding music. That he does it with such ease and dexterity is what sets his playing apart. Yes, there are fireworks when called for, but they are radiant and sparkly fireworks, not bombastic explosions. Yes, there is elegant rubato, but it always remains just that: elegant. Can he sail across the keys at lightning speed? Indeed he can! But his flashy finger-work never fails to serve the music. Mr. Rogé leaves his ego at the door when he sits down to play the piano. His task is to present the composer’s intentions without a major fuss, and he does so to great success.

These Études require careful listening. They are not the kind of music that you put on to nap to, in spite of the fact that a couple of the works are indeed the expected dreamscapes. But the effort pays off, as you find in this music the essence of Debussy’s art as both a pianist and a composer. He explores all of the capabilities and shades of color available in the piano, and paves a few new roads of his own. Play this disc when you have the energy to listen with care. You won’t be sorry.

Kevin Sutton

Understated elegance is the hallmark of these superb readings of Debussy’s last major contribution to the piano literature. Put your thinking cap on and enjoy a journey into the heart of the piano.