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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete Works for Piano
Walter Gieseking (piano)
no. recording dates or locations provided
Track details at foot of review
REGIS RRC 4010 [4 CDs: 4:09:03]

Experience Classicsonline

 
It really is remiss of Regis to issue this historical material without any details of the sources. The notes by Hugo Shirley mention that Gieseking set down the complete piano works of Debussy for EMI in 1951-4. Piano aficionados will obviously know that the present set can only be a transfer of those famous recordings – alternative live or radio sources for many of the pieces do not exist – but the less informed buyer, faced in the shop with this set and EMI’s own transfers, may be left wondering.
 
It perhaps needed explaining, too, that Debussy’s “complete works for piano” are not, today, such a rigidly circumscribed corpus as they seemed to be when Gieseking set down this first “complete” cycle. And it’s not just a matter of one or two odds and ends that have come to light since. The 4h 9m 3s of these four CDs compare with the 7h 14m 36s of Noriko Ogawa’s recently completed cycle, now issued by BIS in a 6-CD box. The extra music played by Ogawa – and mostly included in modern cycles, such as those by Thiollier and Bavouzet – includes pieces published/discovered many years after Debussy’s death, the Images oubliées, the Etude retrouvée, the Intermède transcribed from an early Piano Trio and Debussy’s last piano piece, Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, and a few brief pieces that were known to exist but somehow got forgotten, the Morceau de concours, the Elégie and the Pièce pour l’oeuvre du Vêtement du blessé. It also includes two major works which earlier performers did not consider part of the canon: the 6 Epigraphes antiques, originally written for piano duet but of which Debussy himself made a solo piano version, and La Boîte à joujoux, intended as a ballet but which Debussy left as a short score for piano, later orchestrated by Caplet. Bavouzet has gone a stage further, recording piano versions of the ballets Khamma and Jeux.. Recorded only by Ogawa, so far, are five fugues written as exercises when Debussy was still a student. Lastly, Ogawa also plays the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. Actually, if you get EMI’s own transfer of Gieseking’s performances, you will also have a Gieseking performance of this latter work. It was not an EMI recording but was retrieved by EMI some years ago from the archives of a German radio station. The EMI issue of this performance is still under copyright so could not be included in the Regis issue. An earlier Gieseking performance with Mengelberg has been around.
 
Gieseking was especially noted for his Debussy and Ravel. He was probably the first artist on the international circuit to include substantial selections of these composers’ works in his regular repertoire, though of course many pianists, such as Paderewski, had slipped the odd piece into their programmes. He had already recorded a certain amount of Debussy before the war, performances that some admirers prefer to the later ones. He was a natural choice for the first “complete” cycle on disc and these recordings have attained iconic status, not least due to the glistening, translucent sound that somehow survives the half-century since they were set down.
 
There have nevertheless been dissenting voices. The translucent, glistening sound, some maintain, was the result of a virtual accident. Gieseking had by this time a problem with snorting adenoids and a more distant microphone placing than usual was employed to minimize the sound-effects, coincidentally producing the soft-edged sound that has so enthralled subsequent listeners. The calm, poised, “Olympian” Gieseking that emerged after the war was, some say, an invention of Walter Legge, who produced most of these recordings. The pre-war Gieseking had been a much more volatile interpreter, and his post-war live performances, when Legge was out of the way, were not notably different from the pre-war ones. If this is so, some sort of recorded evidence, one way or another, must survive. More importantly, some insist, Gieseking’s way with Debussy, though it did a great job in putting Debussy on the concert map, was not really the French way and claims for its authenticity have been greatly exaggerated. This is a fascinating question and I would love to address it one day, amassing for the purpose as many early Debussy recordings as can be found. For the moment I will just say that, given the legendary status of these recordings, lovers of Debussy should hear them. So is the Regis set a fair way to get them?
 
I think it is. I know about half of these recordings from EMI LP reissues made towards the end of the vinyl era. They produce a bolder, brighter sound than we hear on the Regis discs. However, I do remember hearing some of the original Columbia LPs in my university library and the soft, always pleasing sound we have here corresponds to what I recall. By getting EMI’s own transfers you’ll also have the Fantaisie, but if this is not important you can reasonably get the Regis set.
 
I could stop there. However, recordings of Debussy piano music have proliferated over the years, many of them achieving high praise. Recently I have been claiming that the most interesting modern cycles were those of Bavouzet and Ogawa. The issue of the latter’s fifth and supposedly last volume confirmed my slight preference for her and was one of my 2011 Records of the Year. So, historical considerations aside, do we still actually need Gieseking? The Regis set arrived together with BIS’s boxed set of the Ogawa cycle – which has acquired a sixth disc in the meantime review. So this seemed a good occasion to compare them fairly closely and establish which Gieseking performances, if any, remain indispensable, in spite of their elderly sound.
 
CD 1
 
Gieseking’s performance of Children’s Corner raises understatement to high art. Everything is exquisitely in place – in miniature. We see from the beginning of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum how observant he is going to be – which of the up-and-down arpeggios are marked crescendo-diminuendo, which aren’t. But Ogawa is no less observant at such points. She emphasizes the crescendo-diminuendo in bar 5 with a slight slowing that I could have done without. On the other hand, she colours the more expressive moments a little more wistfully, and this I like very much.
 
The story is much the same all through. In Jimbo’s Lullaby both artists observe Debussy’s instruction at the beginning, “doux et un peu gauche”. Gieseking basically takes this as applying to the whole piece. Ogawa adds a little more mystery when the chords enter, a little more tenderness to the melody. Gieseking’s Doll is serenaded a little mechanically, as might befit a doll. Ogawa’s serenade has a touch more smiling grace. Honours are perhaps even in The snow is dancing but Ogawa’s Little shepherd seems lost in his thoughts while Gieseking’s is just beautifully tender. Gieseking’s deliberately dead-pan Golliwog’s cake walk has its own brand of humour. Ogawa, without going camp, points up the rhythms and the accents a little more. She offers a broader humour.
 
Undoubtedly Gieseking is very fine and I am wondering if I would end up finding Ogawa ultimately over-characterized. But I don’t think so. Apart from that one point on the first page, everything she does is so musical and natural, and she adds just a dimension more to the music. I can’t think of anything in Gieseking I would miss if I were compelled to hear only Ogawa.
 
The first piece of Images I, Reflets dans l’eau, reminds us that, in spite of the claims made over the years for Gieseking’s performances as uniquely authoritative, he sometimes took tempi that modern interpreters have almost unanimously disregarded. Later on, when discussing the Préludes, I shall go into this further, since Debussy also provided metronome markings for many of those pieces. Gieseking, then, is relatively swift, though still a slowcoach beside Eileen Joyce’s controversially euphoric, but still magical, traversal. Debussy’s tempo marking is “Andantino molto”. Translated literally this means “Going a little a lot” and leaves us wondering how much Italian Debussy actually knew. “Andantino” has always been a problematic marking, but when Italians add the suffix “-ino” they usually imply affection for something that is small and rather nice. So a “ragazzo” is a boy, a “ragazzino” is something like a pretty little boy. A painting by Michelangelo is “bello”, beautiful; a painting by your brother-in-law may be diplomatically described as “bellino”, rather nice. From this point of view Ogawa’s tempo, which drifts along in a leisurely fashion without aiming at earth-shattering passion, seems to me spot on. But I’ve lived in Italy for over 35 years, Debussy didn’t, and we may wonder what he actually thought “Andantino” means.
 
Additionally, Debussy added in brackets “Tempo rubato”. Gieseking was by nature a pianist who played fairly straight. Perhaps influenced by this marking he “worries” the music excessively on the opening page. Ogawa uses less rubato, but at her relaxed tempo it all sounds flexible enough. Gieseking also sounds fraught at times. But, while Ogawa’s performance seems to me to represent an ideal of translucent loveliness, the world is a large enough place to hold Gieseking’s more swift-flowing view, and indeed Eileen Joyce’s Lisztian display.
 
There are no big differences in Hommage à Rameau. It’s a long piece and both artists keep it going steadily but inexorably, with scrupulous tonal shading.
 
There’s a notable difference at the beginning of Mouvement. In the first four bars Debussy has the first three quavers of each bar played with the left hand, the fourth quaver, though the actual notes played are the same, is played by the right hand and has a “tenuto [held]” marking over it. Gieseking makes only a slightly perceptible difference, and Debussy does not, after all, indicate a change to the overall pianissimo marking. Ogawa gives it quite a strong accent, rounded (if my ears are correct) with a little jab of pedal. I should say that Gieseking’s is the more correct solution, Ogawa’s the more interesting and characterful.
 
The other difference, frankly, is that the middle section seems to come more easily to Ogawa. Though Gieseking had a basically fine technique, he did pride himself on not practicing and this is a moment where Debussy’s writing is sufficiently challenging to suggest this was not always wise. Ogawa’s is a joyous, light-filled display, clear and perhaps too easy-going for some tastes. Those wishing for a more elemental performance should probably look beyond these two.
 
In Images II I should sum up the differences by saying that Gieseking is the full impressionist, Ogawa is a pointillist. This is to Ogawa’s advantage in Cloches à travers les feuilles, where her every tiny chime sounds with total clarity, but with no hint of dryness. With Gieseking the effect is more of a generalized wash of sound, very pleasant but a little less focused.
 
In Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut Ogawa is exquisitely careful in her shading – we really hear that the first chord is piano, the second pianissimo – and in flooding the landscape with unearthly white moonlight. On the other hand, she needs space in which to do this and some may prefer Gieseking’s more floating tempi.
 
Gieseking is at his greatest in Poissons d’or. The remarkable thing is how simply he treats it, the fish darting happily around and joining in a woozy waltz in the middle. Ogawa takes more time here, too, and sounds laboured, the fish sluggish in spite of some exquisite individual moments. The only curiosity is that with Ogawa the music somehow sounds more modern, perhaps because more fragmented. Gieseking’s more decorative approach makes Debussy sound closer to Cyril Scott than usual – a composer he admired but whose brand of illustrative-decadent impressionism was quite different from his own. Overall, my preference for Ogawa in the first and probably the second piece cannot compensate for her Poissons being almost a non-starter beside Gieseking’s.
 
The first CD concludes with six of Debussy’s fairly numerous single pieces. The early Mazurka would have better belonged – and most recorded editions place it – among the other early pieces on CD 4 rather than amid these otherwise mature works.
 
One feature of the Gieseking cycle is that it was made long before the cult of the complete cycle had begun, whether live or on disc. While Gieseking had obviously been playing Debussy’s major collections all his life, he learnt many of the smaller pieces for the occasion. He had a notable ability to grasp a piece quickly – he had been known to learn a piece on the train and play it from memory at a recital that evening. This and his general feeling for the style enabled him to produce an instant interpretation – up to a point. Ogawa – and indeed completists from Monique Haas onwards, belongs to a culture where it is normal to give equal attention to all areas of a composer’s output.
 
So, while Gieseking produces a suitably grave atmosphere in the Berceuse héroïque, with only a shortening of note-values on the last page to suggest no great familiarity with the music, Ogawa has evidently thought longer over what she can do to give character and interest to a minor piece. For a change, her tempo is faster, her softer dynamics closer to what is written – the modern recording may help in this respect, of course. She keeps the staccato bass notes really staccato with the right hand chords above them really legato and has the distant fanfares stand out a little more. In short, she is more likely to make you want to listen again to Debussy’s occasional contribution to the war effort.
 
Gieseking plays the Mazurka very prettily, reminding us of his affection for Grieg’s miniatures. You might wonder what else can be drawn from such a slender piece. Yet Ogawa’s slower tempo exchanges flippancy for melancholy grace and wistful poetry.
 
La plus que lente is so larded with tempo changes and calls for rubato that one despairs of ever hearing it convince all through. It doesn’t here. Gieseking seems to have no patience with it, roughing it up mercilessly at every suggestion of an “animé”. Ogawa maybe has too much patience, though, steering her waltz rhythm into the doldrums rather too often. Punters have been suggesting Monique Haas (Erato) for this piece. I could be fairly happy with her elegant but slightly plain-speaking version, as I could with Klara Kormendi’s not dissimilar traversal on a long-deleted Naxos CD of uneven quality. Go to Bavouzet (Chandos) and you’re immediately caught up by a smoochy allure that escapes the others. I think he exaggerates the contrasts in the middle section, but of the five I heard right now, this is the one with the indefinable touch of je ne sais quoi.
 
“When in doubt, pedal” seems to be Gieseking’s motto for Masques. Splurges of meaningless sound alternate with nice moments. The listener is unlikely to get a clear idea of the piece, probably because Gieseking didn’t have one either. With Ogawa everything is crystal clear. Even Gieseking’s nice moments come out more beautiful here.
 
Le petit negro thrusts across Gieseking’s stage in full running kit. Ogawa’s is more jaunty and she actually finds some poetry as she introduces the second theme. A case where Gieseking sounds perfectly all right until you’ve heard Ogawa.
 
Hommage à Haydn is another Debussy piece which often fails to reveal a clear shape. Gieseking is pleasant enough. Ogawa seems to be paying homage to Satie at the beginning with her slow tempo and chunky staccato accompaniment. I was not wholly overwhelmed by everything she did later, but dipping around Bavouzet and Haas I found them less characterful. It’s difficult to get those staccato chords at the beginning out of your head. Debussy marked them staccato, but he also marked a long legato line. Hearing the other performances, he might as well have written “legato” and left it at that. So full marks to Ogawa for at least a memorable beginning.
 
CD 2
 
The Etudes remain an immense challenge, both for the pianist and for the listener. Having commented singly so far on even quite minor works, it may seem perverse to deal collectively with the Etudes. I do it out of kindness to Gieseking’s memory. His recordings of these particular pieces have collected a lot of flak over the years, suggesting that he hastily cobbled together a precarious attempt at music that wasn’t in his regular repertoire. I hadn’t heard this part of the Gieseking canon before and my initial reaction was that it wasn’t quite as bad as had been made out. I’d describe it as a fair shot rather than a complete miss. Nos. 7-9 actually seemed to me to go rather well.
 
But even when Gieseking goes rather well, Ogawa goes better. She seems to have no difficulty in playing the music, nor in inhabiting its recondite world and making that world intelligible to the listener. And this, even more than the technical issue, is what I think separates them. The Etudes are prophetic of so much in later twentieth century music, not least that of Japan, which Ogawa has frequently performed. Gieseking did great work in putting Debussy on the map, but one has the idea that he was puzzled by these late works and is trying to find in them traces of the earlier Debussy he knew and loved.
 
So there’s just no contest. Obviously, Ogawa isn’t the only pianist to have played these pieces with fluency and understanding and it would be interesting at some later stage to compare her in detail with some of the others. I have reviewed for MusicWeb International versions by Fou Ts’ong, Rahkonen, Thiollier, Monique Haas and Uchida and, thus far, Ogawa seems to me preferable. There are others I would like to hear. For those wondering, her approach is gentle, melodious, poetic and atmospheric. She always finds the melodic line within the complicated textures. My only query is that she inserts some quite large commas in the music here and there, no doubt intending to clarify the discourse to the listener. There would certainly be room for a more abrasive approach. If the manner I have described appeals then these performances should be the ones for you.
 
Estampes are a very different matter. These were part of Gieseking’s core Debussy and the music simply pours from his fingers, untrammelled. And yet I’ve had problems in the past, and probably will again, particularly with Pagodes. It’s another of those pieces he plays faster than most other pianists. Furthermore, he’s forging ahead of the tempo long before Debussy ventures to suggest “animez un peu”, a request that draws a full allegro from Gieseking. At times I’ve found it all too breathless. On this occasion, I must say, I was just bewitched as a great artist, even a genius, lifts the notes off the page to create ecstatic poetry.
 
So where does this leave Ogawa, with her translucently cool, beautifully textured playing? It’s lovely, it’s probably closer to Debussy’s markings and it leaves many others standing. But when Gieseking gets the bit between his teeth …
 
The differences are similar but less marked in the other two pieces. At the “Très rythmé” passage in La soirée dans Grenade you might feel Ogawa is holding back if you’ve just heard Gieseking. In reality Gieseking’s sudden burst of a faster tempo is quite unauthorized. And yet, how he evokes the slumbering passion of the sultry Spanish evening. In the final pages of Jardins sous la pluie, I must say that Ogawa comes closer than most to equalling Gieseking’s ecstatic fire.
 
A conundrum, therefore. A lovely performance from Ogawa, closely attuned to Debussy’s written score yet free and spontaneous. And a display of inspired poetry from Gieseking, ostensibly riding rough-shod over Debussy’s markings yet with results that are their own justification. Get both and meditate over the lessons they offer. I think, though, that at this point we should shift aside the idea that Gieseking is “authoritative”, in the sense of handing down the definitive way of playing this music. He’s his own man. And if you’re a piano student wanting a model, go to Ogawa. I’ve found to my cost that Pagodes just gets hectic at Gieseking’s tempo, if you aren’t Gieseking.
 
If you wanted a single performance to prove that Gieseking was one of the very greatest pianists, you might take L’Isle Joyeuse. The notes just stream off the page in an overwhelming effusion of joy. He outplays even Horowitz. Perhaps Gieseking had wanted to do something similar with the Etudes, but here it works because he really knows the piece.
 
Ogawa takes it more steadily. She is sometimes playful where Gieseking is euphoric and she does let us here the actual notes more distinctly. It hardly seems to be the same piece of music, and in this light I can enjoy it as an alternative. But I could dispense with it if I had to. I should hate to be without Gieseking.
 
True to his tendency with the lesser-known pieces, Gieseking is warm and decorous with … d’un cahier d’esquisses .. while Ogawa seems to have thought more deeply about its textures and phrasing.
 
CD 3
 
The two books of Préludes are central to Debussy’s piano writing and Gieseking’s performances of them are supposedly iconic. For all their reputation, this is another of those cases where subsequent performances have not actually heeded the icon. Gieseking’s performances total 69:42; his approximate contemporary Casadesus was a little swifter still. Yet modern recordings tend to divide into those that will just squeeze into an 80-minute CD and those that won’t. Ogawa’s were issued on separate discs and are a borderline case with a total timing of 80:06.
 
The interesting thing is that the metronome markings Debussy supplied for most of the Book 1 Préludes, but only a few of those in Book 2, often suggest he might have found even Gieseking on the languid side. A case in point is the first of Book 1, Danseuses de Delphes. Gieseking takes 3:09; the fastest on my shelves is Thiollier at 2:22, the slowest Antonioli at 4:00. Even supposing the catalogue does not yield up even more extreme cases, this means that the slowest pianist goes at barely more than half the speed of the fastest. An incredible difference.
 
Still, you may say, the main thing is to be convincing. I have to say that Gieseking is not. “Lent et grave” though Debussy may have marked it, he is static and lugubrious, well below the prescribed crotchet = 44, and why does he play the crescendos in bars 4 and 9 as diminuendos? Ogawa is a little swifter (2:45), more luminous in texture and scrupulously observant over dynamics. Of the two she seems preferable. But it still isn’t quite what Debussy asked for. Go to Thiollier and he’s pretty well spot on the metronome marking. He doesn’t sound hurried and the gently swaying motion seems just right.
 
The second prelude, Voiles, reveals a quite different Gieseking. If it matters, he’s pretty close to the metronome mark and the performance has a volatility that really leaves the page, filling the air with enigmatic sounds and movements. The brief passage marked “En animant” introduces what I’m going to call the “whoosh factor”. In Gieseking’s hands the rising scales shoot upward like a rocket. Difficult to say even whether he’s got all the notes, but that isn’t the point. Like Schnabel and Cortot in other contexts, this is a cases where he plays the music and lets the notes follow on as best they can.
 
Ogawa plays this piece very beautifully, at a more relaxed tempo, and her gentle translucency has a poetry of its own. At the “En animant” you can hear all the notes – but the “woosh factor” isn’t there.
 
The third prelude, Le Vent dans la plaine, shows another side of the same coin. Here the two artists’ tempi are not far different and for much of the time there’s little to choose. But one of Ogawa’s few over-personalized touches is her tendency to insert commas in the music from time to time and I just don’t see the sense of her holding up the proceedings before the downward-cascading chords near the beginning and again near the end. Gieseking shows this to be unnecessary. Ogawa is also wanting in the sudden forte gusts of wind. The leaps are hair-raising for the pianist if taken up to speed and Ogawa treats them with caution. Gieseking goes for them with “woosh factor”.
 
The pattern is emerging that Gieseking had a store of genius, inspiration or whatever you want to call it, that put him up among the gods of the piano. But his muse wasn’t always on tap and when he just gives a “good” performance, Ogawa can be his equal, even his better. In the fourth prelude, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, their tempi and mood are the same – Ogawa is all of three seconds faster. But Gieseking is more casual. Debussy’s marking “Serrez …” plus crescendo is interpreted as slowing down with a diminuendo. And this not once but three times, which would have interested Lady Bracknell. By scrupulously realizing what Debussy wrote – all through, not just in those three points – Ogawa also makes the more poetic effect.
 
To cut a long story very slightly short, I would say that in nos. 6 (Des pas sur la neige), 8 (La fille aux cheveux de lin) and 9 (La sérénade interrompue) Gieseking plays very beautifully, and Ogawa no less so. And of course, when other things are equal, she has the advantage of a fine modern recording. On the other hand, in nos. 5 (Les collines d’Anacapri), 7 (Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest), 11 (La danse de Puck) and 12 (Minstrels), Gieseking gets his “woosh factor” going. In no. 5 the tarantella tumbles over with excitement and joi de vivre and in no. 7 his ocean roils up fearfully, engulfing the listener in what sounds like the proverbial mad pianist battering everything in sight. In reality he remains pretty well in control. This is an astounding display and an unmissable piano recording. Ogawa is light-hearted at a slower tempo in no. 5 but she could be preferred in the proto-jazz middle section. She is more observant of Debussy’s dynamics at the start of no. 7, but her ocean wave curls up all too politely. What does interest me is that she produces a bit of “woosh factor” of her own on the last pages of both these two, leaving me to wonder if she couldn’t stretch herself a little more in the studio.
 
Though Debussy’s Puck is not necessarily Shakespeare’s, in Gieseking’s hands he certainly runs a girdle round the world, cavorting crazily and elusively. Ogawa is staid in comparison. And Gieseking’s Minstrels strut and stagger and smooch their way to a brilliant pay-off. Ogawa indulges in some rubato that might raise a laugh in the concert hall, but sounds heavy on disc.
 
La cathédrale engloutie raises the question, do we do as Debussy did or as he wrote? A piano roll made by Debussy himself seems to imply that he muddled his note-values in writing the piece, since in the various very slow chant-like moments he goes at double the written speed. I must say I find this solution increasingly convincing. Bavouzet and Thiollier are among those that have tried it. Gieseking and Ogawa both do as Debussy wrote, and very well. Here, obviously, the modern recording is an advantage in the colossal “big theme”.
 
I’m not sure how this all adds up in favour of one or the other pianist, so I’ll return to the question after comparing them in Book 2.
 
Gieseking takes a little time to get into his stride with Book 2 – maybe he didn’t actually record them in the printed order but that’s how it comes over. He’s a bit casual with the first, Brouillards, and static in no. 2, Feuilles mortes, as he is later in no. 10, Canopes. But then no. 3, La puerta del vino has the authentic bursts of passion, the fairies in no. 4 are suitably airborne and thenceforth one might say he gives an exemplary account of the whole book. So right does it all sound that you’d think it must be easy to get it right, until you investigate the various heavy-footed, dry-textured, over-interpreted alternatives on offer.
 
Not all the alternatives are like that, of course, and one that isn’t is Ogawa’s. With more clarity in no. 1, she evokes better the swirling mists. Feuilles mortes and Canopes are two where she is actually a little faster than Gieseking, and her more flowing tempi are a clear advantage to the music. More unexpectedly, she evokes the brooding passions of La puerta del vino no less that Gieseking. Three years separate Ogawa’s recordings of the two books of Préludes. That can be quite a long time in the life of a young artist. It sounds as though she has been listening to her previous efforts and meditating on the “woosh factor” or at least on the need to stretch herself that little bit more. She may be a little slower than Gieseking in no. 4, Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses, but the iridescent clarity of the playing means it sounds no less fast and at many moments the music really flies off the page.
 
So at this point, I would say that Ogawa, too, gives an exemplary account of the whole book. Without detailing every piece, her rubato in General Lavine – Excentric is risky, but with more “woosh-factor” it comes off better than Minstrels in the previous book. I find her preferable to Gieseking in Les tierces alternées, where she is better able to tease out the sad melody behind the scampering thirds.
 
In just one piece, there is a bigger difference. It is worth noting that, of the ten minute or so difference between the two artists in the two books taken together, around seven regard the first book, only three the second. And of these three minutes, one-and-a-half regard the last piece, Feux d’artifice. This is one of Gieseking’s bomb-shell performances, a riot of colours to leave you gasping. Moment by moment, Ogawa is his equal. She is certainly not cautious and there’s plenty of “woosh-factor” in each single firework display. But somehow she separates the music into separate scenes. Gieseking has not only a series of single “woosh-factors”, he also has an overall “woosh-factor”, so we also feel a mounting excitement that never lets up till it explodes in the falling glissando before the distant coda. Maybe Ogawa will manage this in time …
 
I had hoped that Book 2 would clarify the comparison overall. It doesn’t really. In Book 1 there were six pieces where Gieseking was at his unassailable best, six where Ogawa was equal to him or better. Book 2 adds only one more to the list of unassailable Gieseking performances. Mathematically, that should balance out in favour of Ogawa, who is after all never less than good in the other pieces. But music isn’t mathematics and piano lovers can’t be without those seven Gieseking performances, and he is good in most of the others too …
 
CD 4
 
However differently the various Debussy cycles are coupled, they usually agree in programming the early works – up to the first mature work Pour le piano – together on a single CD. Regis differ only in that, for unexplained reasons, they place the Mazurka elsewhere.
 
The most significant of the early works is probably the Suite Bergamasque. Gieseking gets the Prélude off to a slightly rough start but plays the secondary material with exquisite lightness and grace, as he does the entire Menuet, at a quite swift but beautifully poised tempo. Ogawa’s Prélude is strongest where Gieseking is weakest, shaping the opening paragraph with improvisatory freedom. At a slower tempo, she is no less graceful here and in the Menuet than Gieseking. I find, though, that at climaxes she remains somewhat contained. It is not a question of volume but a sense of opening out towards the listener. It has to be remembered that Ogawa’s disc of early pieces, though issued only in 2011 as Volume 5, actually contains her first Debussy recordings, set down in 2000. Though full of lovely things, it occasionally causes one to wonder how she would play the music a decade later.
 
Gieseking is sublime in the most famous movement, Clair de lune. But Ogawa is no less so and furthermore, by moving the music on a little more in the more animated sections, I find she tugs at the heart-strings where Gieseking’s sublimity can be a little remote. Both offer an unusually slow Passepied, Gieseking full of grace, Ogawa more humorous in her bubbling staccatos. Both artists need to be heard in this suite, therefore.
 
The other most famous early pieces are the two Arabesques. Gieseking is impatient with them, vital but often too loud. Turning to Ogawa, she seems extraordinarily slow, especially in the first. Yet if we turn to the score we find no. 1 marked “Andante con moto” and in 4/4, no. 2 “Allegretto scherzando”, again in 4/4. Most performances of no. 1 suggest an “Allegretto” in 2/2, Gieseking’s almost a full “Allegro”. There are no metronome marks to clarify – or further complicate – the issue but Ogawa undeniably offers the correct interpretation of the markings. Granted the tempi, no. 1 could hardly be given a lovelier performance and in no. 2 her slower tempo allows her an individual sparkle on each of the semiquaver triplets. If this is ultimately too slow for you, “correct” or not, your answer may be Bavouzet, very natural sounding with tempi about midway between Gieseking and Ogawa.
 
Of the remaining early single pieces, three are slow, three fast. Gieseking shows signs of an “instant interpretation” of music he didn’t often play. He evidently sees the Rêverie as salon-music and overdoes the rubato. Ogawa offers exquisite counter-pointing of the hands in the principal theme, her left hand quavers taking on a life of their own and lending the music a new dimension. The Ballade is problematic because of its sectional, repetitive construction. Gieseking tries to paper over the cracks by generating an overall surge. Ogawa begins slowly, but by the bottom of the first page she is moving the music on passionately. Overall, she finds more variety of mood and pace, and here I also find that sense of opening out at climaxes that I missed in the Suite Bergamasque. A wonderful performance. Gieseking’s knowingly vulgar presentation of the main theme in the Nocturne, complete with café chantant rubato, is insidiously effective in its way – and unexpected from this source. Ogawa attempts to relate the piece to Clair de lune, and one would like to think this is what Debussy wanted, but you never know …
 
In the faster pieces, Gieseking takes them by storm, Ogawa by stealth. In the Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) you might find pluses and minuses either way. But in the Valse romantique Gieseking, after a decorous start, apparently loses his temper and bulldozes through the rest. Ogawa’s delicate, imaginative approaches gets what can be got from one of Debussy’s least essential pieces. Ogawa tries to find subtlety even in the Danse bohémienne and I suppose the attempt was worth it, but here maybe the bright and breezy Gieseking has the better.
 
And so to Pour le piano, Debussy’s first masterpiece for piano, a work not yet “impressionist” but possibly foreshadowing the neo-classical Debussy that emerged in his last years. If you like it played in a thorough-going neo-classical manner you might try Monique Haas. Both Gieseking and Ogawa relate it to the impressionist Debussy. In Gieseking’s hands the Prelude could just as well be called Jardins sous la pluie as the piece that actually bears that name and here his “woosh-factor” carries all before it. Ogawa’s performance is similarly conceived but at a lower temperature. Gieseking is no less fine in the other two movements, but here Ogawa’s different approach brings equal rewards. Gieseking has a grave poise in the Sarabande while Ogawa probes it for an almost Mahlerian expressivity. This may have more appeal for today’s listeners. Gieseking’s Toccata carries all before it, though if you want a “woosh-factor” performance Eileen Joyce goes one further in sheer joi-de-vivre, a reminder that some of the finest Debussy performances are not enshrined in complete cycles, or even in complete performances of the various suites and sets. Ogawa seems low-key, if engagingly rhythmic, at the start. But as the broader central theme reaches its climax, while Gieseking has splendid surge, I found Ogawa actually moved me. The result, maybe, of savouring the harmonies more. In the last pages Ogawa finds her own “woosh-factor”, so the gentle start was evidently deliberate. A subtle interpretation which will surely grow on you.
 
The complicated summing-up is that Gieseking is unassailable in Poissons d’or, L’isle joyeuse, seven of the Préludes and the Prelude to Pour le piano. That’s just ten pieces. He is of course very fine in most of the rest but not really on top of the Etudes and disappointing in some of the single pieces. Ogawa is very fine in the Etudes and gets more out of most of the single pieces. Elsewhere she is mainly a match for Gieseking. Even in those ten, if you don’t make the comparison you will probably find her actually disappointing in not more than three of them. And she has recorded a lot of music that isn’t in the Gieseking set. Still, it cannot be said that the Gieseking cycle is completely superseded. It may be some crumb of comfort to reflect that, if you get both, La plus que lente – and, if you don’t like Ogawa’s slow tempo, the first Arabesque – is the only piece of which you may not find a satisfactory performance in one or the other. Review of Ogawa set.
 
Christopher Howell
 

 
Track list
 
CD 1 [59:28]
Children’s Corner [15:20], Images, Première Livre [14:31], Images, Deuxième Livre [11:50], Berceuse héroïque [4:40], Mazurka [2:18], La plus que lent [3:24], Masques [4:13], Le petit negro [1:30], Hommage à Haydn [1:42]
 
CD 2 [60:46]
Etudes [39:27], Estampes [11:42], L’isle joyeuse [4:54], D’un cahier d’esquisses [4:40]
 
CD 3 [69:42]
Préludes, Première Livre [35:58], Préludes, Deuxième Livre [33:44]
 
CD 4 [59:07]
Suite Bergamasque [15:49], Rêverie [3:32], Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) [4:42], 2 Arabesques [6:22], Ballade [6:22], Valse romantique [3:05], Nocturne [5:43], Danse bohémienne [1:50], Pour le piano [11:42]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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