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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Music - Volume 5
2 Arabesques (1890-1) [8:56], Danse (Tarentelle styrienne) (1890)
[5:09], Ballade(1890) [7:26], Valse romantique (1890) [3:22], Rêverie
(1890) [5:02], Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) [18:04], Mazurka (1890)
[2:55], Nocturne (1892) [6:21], Danse bohémienne (1880) [2:08],
Pour le Piano (1894-1901) [14:20]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
rec. Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden, January 2000
I have suggested several times that the Debussy piano music
cycles by Ogawa and Bavouzet (Chandos) are the most significant
of recent surveys. The Bavouzet has been fairly speedy in its
erection. Begun in 2006 it is now complete, maybe more than
complete since the latest volume embraced piano transcriptions
of some orchestral works. If Bavouzet intends to pursue this
path he may have several more volumes in store. Nevertheless,
as far as original piano music is concerned his series is finished.
Ogawa has built up her cycle much more slowly and patiently.
Volume I, with much praised versions of the “Estampes” and “Images”,
was set down in 2000. Succeeding volumes followed at two- or
three-yearly intervals. The most recent, until now, was a really
magnificent set of the “Etudes” (Vol. IV). Though Ogawa presumably
doesn’t intend to delve into orchestral transcriptions she has
nevertheless included several items – the two-hand version of
the “Epigraphes antiques”, an enthralling performance of “La
Boîte à joujoux” and some smaller pieces – which did not appear
in earlier “canonical” cycles by Gieseking, Casadesus and others.
Here, then, is her final volume, following the previous one
at a due interval.
So it is surprising to say the least to discover that this last
volume had existed all along. It was set down a few months before
Vol. I and has been sitting unreleased for eleven years. BIS
have explained to MusicWeb that, since Ogawa’s second
sessions contained more substantial music, the decision was
made to put this first disc on hold, record all the later works
and then bring out the present CD of Debussy’s earlier
pieces as the concluding volume. This would have been OK if
the entire process had taken place over two or three years,
but Ogawa is still a fairly young artist who has surely matured
in the meantime. I would like to hear how she plays this music
But let me start by saying that this may well be the most beautiful
Debussy disc in my collection. Ogawa’s sound is always limpid,
her textures transparent, her phrasing natural and musical,
her tempi unhurried but backed up by a superb sense of rhythm.
I listened first to the “Suite Bergamasque” and could only wonder,
in the “Prélude”, at how naturally she applies quite generous
rubato without distorting either the line or the rhythmic motion.
Debussy actually marked this piece “tempo rubato” and performers
tend to divide between those who pull the music out of shape
in their attempt to obey the instruction, and those who go prim
and straight. Ogawa has the secret of it. Her “Menuet” and her
“Passepied” are taken very gently, but with a rhythmic lilt
that makes you smile. “Clair de lune” is played with real feeling
yet free of romantic excess.
If I had begun at the beginning, though, with the first “Arabesque”,
I might have had a few doubts. It’s certainly a very beautiful
performance, the music flows gently and naturally from her fingers.
But it is unusually slow and a little placid. At this point
I turned to Bavouzet. He is quite a bit faster, but his actual
sound is no less translucent and the music floats as if on air.
In truth, Debussy marked this piece “Andantino con moto”. To
my ears Bavouzet’s tempo is Allegretto while Ogawa’s is a full
Andante. So maybe the right tempo is in the middle, but of the
two I prefer Bavouzet.
The tables turn in the second “Arabesque”, though. The clarity
and evenness of Ogawa’s triplets is marvellous pianism in itself,
but above all she uses her slower tempo to bring out the cheeky
humour of the piece. Bavouzet by contrast sounds as if he has
a train to catch.
The other piece about which I had some doubt is the “Ballade”.
This, like the first “Arabesque”, is marked “Andantino con moto”
and here, too, while on a phrase-by-phrase basis I admired the
sheer beauty of Ogawa’s slow unfolding, she does little to disguise
the sectional construction of the music, as a more ardent rendering
can do to some extent. On the other hand, she is ravishing in
the stronger slow pieces, the “Rêverie” and the “Nocturne”.
But so, frankly, is Bavouzet. She is magical in the “Tarentelle
styrienne” and scores notable successes with the “Valse romantique”
and the “Mazurka”. Every time a record of Debussy’s early pieces
heaves in sight my heart sinks at the thought I have to listen
to these two again. Ogawa’s graceful elegance has won me over
at last. I might even listen to them again for sheer pleasure.
The pay-off of the “Mazurka” shows she can be bold when needs
be and she’s quite cheeky with the “Danse bohémienne”.
And lastly, the most mature work here, “Pour le piano”, often
interpreted in a dry neo-classical light. Ogawa’s pianism is
all about colours. While Bavouzet’s “Toccata” is a brilliant
display of fireworks, Ogawa’s sounds as if it has as much right
to be called “Jardins sous la pluie” as the later piece that
actually bears that name. Pure magic!
So has perfection come to an imperfect world? Well, when I started
by saying this might be the most beautiful Debussy record in
my collection, some might have detected an inherent reservation.
Whatever Keats thought, I’m not sure that beauty is truth, or
at least the only way to it. If heaven is really as full of
angels sitting on clouds and playing harps as they say, this
would surely have even a Trappist Monk longing for an unredeemed
saxophone or two. Amid so much unremitting loveliness one may
just sometimes wish for something bigger, riskier, even a little
abrasive. In short, for Bavouzet. Ungrateful sod, aren’t I?
But here we’re back to my opening point. For we are comparing
Bavouzet pretty well as he is now with Ogawa eleven years ago.
Ogawa’s superbly characterized “La Boîte à joujoux” and her
magnificent “Etudes” suggest that she might herself provide
this extra interpretative range today. So, grateful as I am
for this truly beautiful record, I wish I had been allowed to
hear it eleven years ago when it was made, and could now hear
Ogawa’s latest recording of the same music.
But there it is. As things stand Ogawa and Bavouzet offer in
any case the two essential Debussy cycles of our time. Ogawa
is unfailingly beautiful, truly poetic, Bavouzet sometimes bolder
and wider-ranging. But he can be ravishing too. On the downside,
Ogawa at her least effective can be a little placid, Bavouzet
at his can be over-assertive, even aggressive. Bavouzet also
goes in for a lot of left-hand-before-right and split chords,
which I suppose some people actually like. It’s a big drawback
for me. As the two cycles are differently coupled, there’s no
way you can get a bit of one and a bit of the other and still
have all the music without duplications. So you have to throw
in your lot completely with one or the other. Or, if you really
love Debussy, get both. And, since the “Préludes” seem to draw
out the weakest in both of them, supplement them with Gieseking
in those. If you don’t like historical sound, then Thiollier’s
“Préludes” (Naxos) are the high point of an uneven cycle and
offer a plausible reproduction of Gieseking’s volubility in