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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
The Solo Piano Works
Noriko Ogawa (piano) (all works)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui (in Fantaisie)
rec. January 2000 (CD 1), August 2000 (CD 2), July 2002 (CD 3), June 2004 (CD 4, La Boîte à joujoux), July 2005 (CD 4, other items), July 2007 (CD 5), July 2009 (CD 6, Fantaisie), August 2011 (CD 6, Fugues), Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden (CDs 1-5), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore (CD 6, Fantaisie), Potton Hall, Suffolk, England (CD 6, Fugues)
6 CDs for the price of 2
See full track list at foot of review
BIS CD 1955/56 [6 CDs: 7:14:36]

Experience Classicsonline


I have been declaring for some time that the most significant Debussy cycles in the making were those by Ogawa and Bavouzet. With the issue of Ogawa’s fifth disc – one of my 2011 Records of the Year – her cycle was to all effects complete. Here it is boxed together with a sixth disc, of which more below. Given the offer of six discs for the price of two, this seems to me the best modern cycle to buy. Furthermore, it contains something like three hours’ more music than earlier cycles such as those by Gieseking and Monique Haas, which stuck to the official “canon” of works. The Debussy piano music catalogue has been getting increasingly blurry at the edges. Indeed, Bavouzet misses – as of now – a few things included by Ogawa, but includes piano versions of the ballets Khamma and Jeux.
A recent transfer of the Gieseking cycle on Regis prompted me to make a detailed comparison between Ogawa and Gieseking in all the “canonical” works. Did we still need Gieseking after all these years? I concluded that, in ten pieces, he remains unassailable. In all the rest Ogawa equalled, and sometimes surpassed him.
I will refer readers to that review for the “canonical” works and will discuss here the pieces not recorded by Gieseking. I have not reread my original reviews of the separate Ogawa issues so readers with nothing better to do can amuse themselves looking for discrepancies. Obviously, one’s reaction will modify over time.
CD 1 contains no “non-canonical” works but CD 2 has the substantial addition of the so-called “Images oubliées”. Written in 1894 these are an astonishing advance on the salon pieces Debussy had been writing around 1890-92. Only the central Souvenir de Louvre was published, in 1896, entitled Sarabande. With this same title it resurfaced as the middle movement of Pour le Piano in 1901. For the composition student the tiny adjustments of harmony and texture are fascinating. But for the less specialized listener, well acquainted with the later version, the two obvious differences will be that the magical bare octaves near the beginning were harmonized back in 1894 and that the final cadence is approached differently. He may wonder if he really needs to hear the piece twice over.
The third piece, too, uses familiar themes – they resurfaced, this time, in Jardins sous la pluie. Here, though, the actual use is rather different, possibly more experimental than convincing. That leaves the untitled first piece as an extraordinarily abstracted masterwork, prophetic of much that was to come at least two decades later.
I’m not sure who was the first pianist to record this triptych – could it have been Livia Rev? – but since its publication in 1976 it has usually been included in Debussy cycles. I’ve compared Ogawa with Thiollier and Bavouzet.
In the first piece Thiollier takes Debussy’s instruction – Lent (mélancolique et doux) – at its word. He draws the music out a minute longer than the other two. His timeless, disembodied meditation, almost a pre-echo of Messiaen, seems to find the most in it. Bavouzet injects a degree of romantic passion that some will like more than I do. Though close to Bavouzet’s timing, Ogawa finds more of the mystery and poetry of the score.
In the Sarabande it is Thiollier and Bavouzet who are closest in timing and concept. I find them both somewhat unsettled, proving that a swifter-flowing tempo will work only if you can do it with the Olympian calm Gieseking managed in the later version of the piece. Ogawa gave it a Mahlerian expansiveness in its Pour le Piano incarnation. Here, recorded a few months later, she adds a very few seconds more. However, with exquisite tonal shading and never-heavy textures, hers is actually the version in which time seems to pass more quickly.
Thiollier is slowest in Nous n’irons plus au bois. His tentative approach – deliberately, I am sure – gives the impression of something glimpsed but not quite come into focus. Since, from the point of view of Debussy’s own development, this is precisely what the music is, this approach has its uses. Faster by a minute, Bavouzet’s bold, virtuosic approach makes the piece a viable concern on its own terms. I’m not sure that Ogawa – halfway between them in her timing – quite manages that, but she does find some cheeky humour and, as is her wont, coaxes out poetry where it is to be found.
The unhelpful conclusion seems to be that, of the three performances, each one has the best version of one of the three movements.
The one “extra” work in CD 3 is the tiny Morceau de Concours. In the competition in question, 6 brief pieces were published anonymously in the January 1905 issue of the magazine Musica. Readers were invited to guess the composers. The results appeared in the April issue – other composers participating were Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Chaminade. Debussy’s contribution was actually a recycling of material for an opera on Poe’s The Devil in the Belfry which never got beyond a few fragmented sketches. We are not told how many readers identified the Debussy piece, if any. Perhaps deliberately, it is uncharacteristic in its abrasive drollery.
Thiollier despatches it too swiftly to make any impression. Bavouzet and Ogawa both appreciate that Assez animé et très rythmé doesn’t necessary have to be all that speedy. Their clear, observant performances are virtually interchangeable.
The extra-canonical portion of CD 4 is more substantial. First two brief items which Debussy contributed in 1915 as manuscripts to be auctioned for charities connected with the war.
The Pièce pour l’oeuvre du “Vêtement du blessé” is a gentle little waltz. Like La plus que lente, it has many detailed indications for changes of tempo. Ogawa treats these with a certain restraint and would seem to have reason since such a short piece risks falling apart if the tempo changes are not conceived as variations of one single tempo. On a bar-by-bar basis Bavouzet offers much refined pianism and indeed Thiollier, who exaggerates the changes even more, has some beautiful moments.
Bavouzet takes much more time than either of the others over the Elégie, finding in it an expression of genuine, numbed grief. Ogawa is also interesting, her grief more stylized, and appreciative of the bluesy harmonies. Thiollier is a little confused, with a couple of poorly-managed pedal-releases.
La Boîte à Joujoux was intended as a ballet score. It was completed by Debussy in short piano score, including a detailed synopsis of the action. He never finished the orchestration, which was completed by Caplet. With some composers a short score might mean an orchestral score sketched out on two staves, with no attempt at making it effective as piano music. Debussy’s short score, maybe because he thought firstly in pianistic terms, maybe because he knew that a piano version would have been needed at some stage if only for rehearsals, is pianistically perfectly viable. So we can hear the music in two ways: in the piano version which is all Debussy’s work and in the orchestral version that is partly Caplet’s work, though probably fairly close to what Debussy himself would have provided.
Earlier cycles of Debussy’s piano music ignored La Boîte à Joujoux, presumably on the grounds that it was not intended as piano music. In whatever form, it has not been one of Debussy’s most loved works even by his admirers. I went along with this until I heard Ogawa’s version for the first time. Her range of colour, characterization and sheer imagination put the piece on the map for me. This time I had a score to hand and can only add to my former comments my admiration for the precision with which every nuance is observed. This really is consummate artistry.
There is also a substantial amount of non-canonical Debussy in CD 5, three of the works discovered too recently for inclusion in Thiollier’s cycle.
The history of the Etude retrouvée would not seem to reflect much credit on Debussy scholars. It had always been known that a manuscript sketch entitled Pour les arpèges composés existed. Since this is also the title of the “official” eleventh étude it was always supposed that it was another sketch for this same piece. But until recently nobody actually looked to see … It now appears that Debussy worked concurrently on two quite different pieces addressing the same technical problem, and then chose the other one for inclusion in the set of 12 Etudes. Curiously, the Etude retrouvée is in a style that would have sat uneasily with its proto-modernist companions, a harp-like piece in a somewhat post-Fauré vein, with leanings even towards Rachmaninov-type romanticism. Ogawa’s enchantingly delicate performance assuredly tells one side of its story. I wondered if its romantic side might be given fuller vent and would like to know what Bavouzet, whose version I don’t know, has made of it.
The Intermède takes us back to the very beginning of Debussy’s composing career. It is a transcription, perhaps by Debussy himself, of the middle movement of a Piano Trio. Like the Danse bohémienne, with which it is approximately contemporary, it suggests that a future might have been predicted at that time for Debussy as a composer of ballet music after the manner of Delibes. Ogawa plays it with grace and warmth. I doubt if anything of more moment could be extracted from this very agreeable trifle, of which this seems to be the only recording for now.
The Epigraphes antiques recycle music originally written in 1900-1 to accompany a recitation of some of Pierre Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis. An ensemble of two flutes, two harps and celesta was used. The music is unrelated to the better-known set of three songs with the same title. In 1914 Debussy reworked some of the pieces to make a suite for piano duet. The austere, pared-down textures enabled him to make a solo piano version the following year which retained most of the notes.
Thiollier offers a traditionally impressionist Debussy, misty and generously pedalled. Ogawa aims for greater clarity. On the first page of no. 1, her genuinely staccato left hand shows what the differences will be. In no. 5 she makes skilled use of the third pedal to keep the lower textures sustained while the melody is completely clean. Thiollier uses the more usual Debussy technique of half-pedalling and vibrato pedalling to obtain a compromise where the sustained textures are fairly well sustained and the melody is a little clouded but not too much so. A case might be made for preferring Thiollier. However, he cannot convince us that the Debussy we know and love is quite present in these pieces. Ogawa’s more modernist approach claims independent expressive ground for them.
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon was only discovered in 2001. A gift to Debussy’s coal merchant, who managed to find him some precious coal during the harsh, war-torn winter of 1916-17, it was the composer’s last composition. It makes a number of references to earlier works. Bavouzet seems to have been first in the field with a recording, anticipating Ogawa by less than a year. He gives an austere reading, in line with late Debussy. When the sad central melody gets under way Ogawa caresses it more movingly, surely to its advantage.
CD 6 is new and, as of now, available only as part of the set. The latest – and final? – discovery in the solo piano line is the five fugues, one incomplete, written by Debussy in 1881-83, three as exercises for the Conservatoire, the other two as part of his application for the Prix de Rome. The Conservatoire ones had the fugue subjects provided by the current director, Ambroise Thomas, and very nondescript they are too. For the 1882 Prix de Rome fugue, the theme had been provided by Gounod. With a small chromatic twist, it offered entrants a slightly more interesting challenge. The fugues were to be conceived in abstract, that is to say not for any specific instrument, though the possibility was reserved for the better ones to be heard on the piano before the examiners passed their final judgement. It’s curious that the Conservatoire fugues begin immediately with at least two voices – presumably this is what the examiners wanted. The Prix de Rome ones begin like normal fugues. If you want proof that the young Debussy could write academic fugues as uninteresting as the next man’s, here it is. I suggest you listen standing up, as it’s less easy to doze off in that position. Ogawa plays them with warm tone and clear part-writing. I suppose a solution could have been to play them as fast as possible and so maybe bamboozle the listener into finding an exciting build-up that would be the performer’s not the composer’s. Ogawa just lets them flow gently. You may find them useful as a “guess-who-wrote-this” game to try on friends.
The Fantaisie is obviously a more serious matter, though it’s still very early Debussy, succulent but not very memorable. Ogawa plays it very nicely but I wondered if the orchestra was not excessively languid at times.
This is fair enough if you didn’t collect any of the earlier Ogawa volumes and are now buying all six for the price of two. If you’ve already got the basic five, you’re hardly going to want to pay the price of two CDs to get just one more 48-minute one, half of which you may not listen to twice. And if issued separately, this latest offering is not very competitive since to all intents and purposes it just has the Fantaisie. Bavouzet’s performance of the Fantaisie – which I haven’t heard – comes with the two Ravel concertos and some rare Massenet solo pieces. The drawback there is that you’ve probably got a favourite recording of the Ravel G major at least. I would suggest that, for a separate issue, BIS should drop the fugues and get Ogawa to do some more French works with orchestra, such as Fauré, D’Indy and Roussel.
The CDs come with informative notes by Leif Hasselgren, on which I’ve drawn for some of the information above, and a synopsis of La Boîte à joujoux.
Christopher Howell

Track list
CD 1 [75:08]
2 Arabesques (1890) [8:56], Danse (Tarantelle 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]
CD 2 [73:28]
Images (1re série) (1905) [15:55], Images (2e série) (1907) [15:31], Images (oubliées) (1894) [14:09], Estampes (1903) [14:52], Masques (1904) [5:10], L’Isle joyeuse (1904) [6:00]
CD 3 [73:28]
Préludes (1re livre) (1909-10) [42:09], D’un cahier d’esquisses (1904) [4:36], Pièce pour piano (Morceau de concours) (1905) [0:48], Hommage à Haydn (1909) [2:27], The Little Nigar (1909) [1:42], Children’s Corner (1906-08) [17:11], La plus que lente (1910) [5:05]
CD 4 [79:37]
Préludes (2e livre) (1911-12) [37:57], Berceuse héroïque (1914) [3:58], Pièce pour l’œuvre du Vêtement du blessé (Page d’album) (1915 [1:11], Elégie (1915) [1:54], La Boîte à joujoux (1913) [33:04]
CD 5 [81:42]
Etudes (1915) [49:51], Etude retrouvée (1915) [5:13], Intermède (1880/82) [4:05], 6 Epigraphes antiques (1914-15) [1907], Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) [2:05]
CD 6 [48:54]
5 Fugues d’école (1881-83) [23:01], Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (1889-90) [24:40]


































































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