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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 5
Twelve Études [46:17]
Etude retrouvée [4:45]
Masques [4:36]
D'un cahier d'esquisses [4:23]
L'isle joyeuse [5:36]
Nocturne [6:00]
Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) [4:45]
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. 2016, SWR Kammermusikstudio, Stuttgart, Germany
SWR MUSIC SWR19044CD [76:32]

This is the fifth and last installment of Michael Korstick’s complete Debussy solo piano works. The first four volumes have won some golden opinions, but still somehow this pianist has not quite become recognised outside Germany as the superb recording artist he is, and in several composers. Even the note in this CD refers to him as “one of Germany’s leading pianists”. Yet he has made more than 50 CD recordings, among them a splendid survey of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, of which the complete set came out in 2012. I have treasured discs of him in Schubert and Liszt also. He has been the recipient of Germany's Echo Klassik prize in 2005, as well as of six "Awards of the German Record Critics", most recently in November 2014. Perhaps this Debussy cycle, completed with the issue of this disc at the start of the Debussy anniversary year, will spread his fame wider. It deserves to.

The main work here is of course the Douzes Études, the two late books of studies. Written in a few weeks in the late summer of 1915, they were apparently inspired by Debussy’s work on an edition of the Chopin studies. If they are not as immediately attractive as those, or Debussy’s earlier preludes, he was rather proud of his work on these studies. Like many of the modernist piano works they inspired, not least those of Bartók, they are worth taking the time to get to know. The very first study pokes affectionate fun at Czerny’s five-finger exercises, and Korstick immediately shows his dry wit in the way he articulates the parodistic passages. The running thirds of the second study and the hammered chords that form its coda are excitingly done.

The third piece is still more modern sounding, based on fourths, but Korstick manages to negotiate its quicksilver changes of mood with aplomb. Perhaps sometimes Korstick is on the aggressive side, pointing up the aspects of the music that led to Bartók, Profofiev and others treating the piano as a percussion instrument. I would not over-emphasize this element, but for the fact that the instrument as recorded has a slightly harsh clangour when the piano gets to f or ff in the upper register, as in the very last of the twelve studies.

But there is still much to admire. Debussy wrote no fingerings or pedaling instructions for these studies, but there are plenty of expressive indications, not least in that third one – “playfully”, “calmly”, “sadly”, “faraway” and more – and the pianist observes them all closely, as he does throughout the set. The changes of mood within some of these pieces are often stark and sudden, and the pianist here nonetheless makes them sound natural. The technical demands too are all fully met, which must require much preparation, but the result is that these twelve pieces quite often sound as evocative in their more radical way as the earlier Debussy piano masterworks.

A group of those earlier works fill out the disc, along with a quite different version of the eleventh study, the étude retrouvée. Of all these the most important, indeed one of the composer’s very best works in any genre, is L'isle joyeuse (‘The Joyful Isle’). That work drew its inspiration from Watteau’s painting ‘The embarkation for Cytherea’ – “but with less melancholy” Debussy said drily. Its mood is certainly not melancholy, but presents joyfulness of an ecstatic sort which can be best expressed in song and dance, and this work really sings and dances in Korstick’s hands. He is more flexible than some with his rubato, and at times his tempi make the travellers sound impatient to be off. But the glorious climax is very well done, as the great melody exults above the turbulence beneath, banners flying and trumpets blazing.

This is a very recommendable release then, which anyone collecting Korstick’s Debussy series will want to have. But it is also a satisfying individual disc for someone looking for a modern account of the Douze Études. Once considered difficult (to listen to, as well as to play) these twelve studies are now blessed with several fine recordings, from the one in Gieseking’s pioneering Debussy series, via Uchida, Pollini, Aimard, Thibaudet, Rogé, Ogawa and Bavouzet - those last four in much praised cycles of all the solo piano works. This Korstick account of the studies might not disturb earlier allegiances to any of those rivals, but it surely belongs in their company. The extra works are also well done, and the whole cycle now stands comparison with the other modern intégrales.

The piano sound is generally very good, despite the clangour at the top mentioned earlier, which is hardly unknown on modern discs of modern pianos. It is not as warm a sound as that which Philips gave to Uchida, which probably remains the leading choice in terms of sound and recording. The booklet has an amusing note from Korstick about his first encounters with Debussy, and short notes on the music written by Debussy authority Robert Orledge, no less. This review and the listing above relate to the CD, but the album download is an ‘extended version’ which adds Debussy’s solo piano score of Jeux, the ballet written for Diaghilev in 1913 – quite a substantial extra at over 17 minutes. If you want that piece on a CD, it can be found in an excellent account on volume five of Bavouzet’s Chandos cycle.

Roy Westbrook


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