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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
The Philips Recordings
Hans Henkemans (piano)
rec. 1951-57
First international CD release
DECCA 4829490 [4 CDs: 267:09]

Readers can be forgiven if they have no knowledge of, or familiarity with, the Dutch pianist Hans Henkemans. He was born in The Hague in 1913 and studied piano at the Royal Conservatory. He also took composition lessons with Willem Pijper at Rotterdam Conservatory between 1933 and 1938. From 1931 he studied medicine at Utrecht University, and practiced as a psychiatrist until the end of the war. He then embarked on a concert career, making his debut at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in December 1945. He performed across Europe and made regular guest appearances at the Salzburg and Edinburgh Festivals. His Beethoven and Ravel was highly regarded, but he became a renowned specialist in Mozart and Debussy. In 1951, the newly born Philips label was looking to build up a catalogue, and approached Henkemans to record the complete piano works of Debussy, in addition to a series of Mozart piano concertos. He later held teaching posts at Groningen and Amsterdam. He retired from the concert platform in 1969 and returned to psychiatry. He died in 1995 in Nieuwigen.

Henkemans’ Preludes Books 1 and 2 are amongst the finest I've heard. Technically polished, rhythmically engaging and tonally shaded they make for a compelling listen. Book 1 opens with ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ which is nicely paced and elegant. In ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ the winds have a menacing chill, whilst in ‘Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest’ they blow with anger and portent. Tender lyricism imbues ‘La fille aux chevaux de lin’. ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ has nobility and grandeur, and Henkeman's voicing of chords and subtle pedalling achieves some startling sonorities, as well as conveying the underlying mystery. ‘La Danse de Puck’ is mischievous, lighthearted and playful, ‘Minstrels’ is crisply articulated and quirky. Book 2 opens with ‘Brouillards’, which is hazily impressionistic. ‘La Puerto del Vino’ was inspired by the image on a postcard sent him by Manuel de Falla, here portrayed with an infectiously buoyant rhythm. ‘Général Lavine – eccentric’ and ‘Hommage à S Pickwick Esq’. have plenty of character, quirkiness and humour. ‘Feux d’artifice’ boils over with nervous energy, with the cascading runs radiating a coruscating brilliance.

The twelve Études are the composer’s last masterpieces, written in 1915 against the tragic backdrop of war and the encroaching cancer that was to end his life three years later. Placing great technical demands on the performer, they are both exploratory and adventurous. Henkemans steps up to the mark in impressive fashion and his readings are more technically refined and polished than Gieseking’s. Even his faithful adherence to the composer’s markings doesn’t preclude his allowing each to flow freely and breathe naturally. In No. 1, which pays tribute to Czerny, Henkemans negotiates the runs cleanly and fluently. The more demanding ones, such as ‘Pour les octaves and ‘Pour les accords’, are delivered with unruffled ease and breathtaking virtuosity.

Images are my particular favourite amongst Debussy’s piano music, with Michelangeli heading my preferred versions, closely followed by Seong-Jin Cho. Henkemans’ version stands up well. I’m amazed how imaginatively he projects the music in such diverse, colourful garb, and with such scrupulous attention to detail. ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ paints images of rippling water, and ‘Hommage à Rameau’ is nobly poised. The bells of ‘Cloches a travers les feuilles’ are ravishingly intoned, whilst ‘Poissons d’or’ is shimmeringly effervescent.

The Suite Bergamasque is famous, in large part, for the ubiquitous ‘Clair de Lune’, which Henkemans contours with richly, impressionistic hues. ‘Passepied’ trots along with buoyancy and glee. In Pour le Piano I would single out the ‘Toccata’ for its deft finger-work. Children's Corner was dedicated to his daughter Chou-Chou, who was to tragically die of diphtheria only a year after her father. ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ makes reference to Clementi’s exercises, and is played with freshness and flexibility. ‘Snow is Dancing’ captures to perfection sparkling ice crystals. ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’, with its catchy syncopations, is characterized with wit and humour. Henkeman’s ‘L'îsle joyeuse’, inspired by the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau’s The Embarkation for Cythera, is a powerful reading, orchestral in conception and intense.

These Debussy recordings are more or less contemporary with Walter Gieseking’s for HMV, also recorded in the early fifties. Henkemans’ formidable technique, dynamic variance, sensitive touch, control of pedal and achievement of colour make these ground-breaking interpretations. He also realized the supreme importance of fidelity to the score. I did a head-to-head comparison, confining myself to the audio quality of the Gieseking and Henkemans’ cycles and the latter wins hands down. The Philips sound is much brighter, clearer and less-congested. The excellent 44-page booklet in French and English provides a biography of the pianist, and an article by him in which he discusses his personal thoughts on the composer. Tom Deacon also contributes a section on the repertoire.

This wonderful cycle, unknown to many, will be a revelation. This would be the cycle I would favour above all the others for my desert island, yes even the Gieseking! The recordings are a First International, digitalized release.

Stephen Greenbank

CD1 [77:44]
Préludes (Book I) L 125 (1909-10)
Préludes (Book II) L 131 (1911-12)

CD2 [72:40]
Douze Études (Book I) L 143 (1915)
Douze Études (Book II) L 143 (1915)
Images (Book I) L 105 (1901-1905) *
Images (Book II) L 120 (1907) *

CD3 [59:18]
Arabesques L 74 (1890-91)
Tarentelle styrienne (Danse) L 77a (1890-91) *
Ballade (Ballade slave) L 78 (1890-91) *
Mazurka L 75 (1890-91) *
Rêverie L 76 (1890-91) *
Valse romantique L 79 (1890-91) *
Suite bergamasque L 82 (1890, rev. 1905)
Pour le piano L 95a (1896-1901) *

CD4 [57:27]
La plus que lente, valse L 128 (1910)
Estampes L 108a (1903)
Children’s Corner L 119 (1906-1908) *
L’Isle joyeuse L 109 (1903-04)
Masques L 110 (1903-04)
Hommage à Haydn L 123 (1909) *
Berceuse héroïque L 140a (1914) *
D’un cahier d’esquisses L 112 (1904) *

*First-ever CD release (all other repertoire available for the first time internationally) 



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