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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Estampes [13:53]
Études Book 2 [25:50]
Images Book 1 [15:40]
L'isle joyeuse [6:33]
Nelson Goerner (piano)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, 2013
ALPHA 404 [62:04]

This Nelson Goerner Debussy recital first appeared in 2013, when the company (Outhere Music France) branded its classical CDs as ‘Zig Zag’. Apart from a new cover, this incarnation under the Alpha imprint is identical. There are the same booklet notes, but much better printed, with the pianist’s own interjected observations brought into clearer focus by using a different colour. There is no sound reprocessing, which would anyway have been superfluous for what is a well-engineered disc. So this is less a reissue than a repackaged reminder of a very fine Debussy recital disc, and in the centenary year of the composer’s birth. Since MusicWeb apparently did not receive it for review it in 2013, it as well to note its many strengths now.

First there is the programme, which makes a satisfying hour-long recital for listening straight through. Putting just the second book of Études (i.e. numbers 7 to 12 of the complete set) in the middle of the programme works surprisingly well, flanked by the more popular sets of Estampes and Images Book 1, and with the virtuosic L'isle joyeuse providing a spectacular close. Thus the opening item on the disc is ‘Pagodes’, No.1 of the Estampes (or ‘Prints’) in which, as Stephen Walsh suggests in his excellent recent book on Debussy, pagodas are invoked because they are “layered towers, and Pagodes, too, is composed in layers”. In Goerner’s performance you hear at the outset the pianist’s command, through skilful touch and pedalling, of those layers. In ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ the evening in Granada is evoked by the persistent habanera rhythm and guitar inflections, to which Goerner brings a fine feel for keyboard colour, so essential in this music.

The Études are of course, just that, studies focussed on some aspect of keyboard technique, but never merely that – Debussy had been editing Chopin’s studies, and like those of the Pole, the Frenchman’s studies are as evocative as the pieces to which he gave more descriptive titles. This is Goerner’s strength. He famously has the technique to do them justice, but always finds the poetry behind the notes. The range of Goerner’s touch is often remarkable, as in No.10 ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’ where the ‘contrasting sonorities’ are each in turn wonderfully controlled, right through to the whispered ending, on the threshold of inaudibility but still just present – one is compelled to listen very closely to such playing.

With the first book of Images we have the more impressionist Debussy (he hated the term, but no-one has found a better one at least for some of his music). In ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ the watery reflections are distilled at once by Goerner’s great sensitivity in the handling of the opening chords and phrases growing from them. The ‘Hommage à Rameau’ is a piece called by Walsh, along with many others including the pianist, “beyond question one of Debussy’s finest” and it has had many very good performances, no doubt. But I don’t know a better one than that it is given here, especially in the control of the gradual intensification the work requires. ‘L'isle joyeuse’, with its quite different mood has something of the same narrative hold on the listener, right through to the joyous dancing climax, which is steady rather than excitable in this reading.

I looked back at some reviews of the recording’s first issue, and they are almost universally laudatory, and to high degree – “a more satisfying single-disc survey is impossible to imagine” was one encomium. I should note though that one great authority on the music, Roger Nichols, regretted some pedalling decisions and a few dropped notes in the Études. But pedalling is a tricky issue in Debussy and the scarcity of pedal markings is usually taken to mean he expects the player to make their own decisions. Perhaps a couple of retakes would have turned this superb recital into a note perfect one, but then some sterility and caution could have crept in.

The notes by Dominique Jameux are very good, and the interjections from Goerner quite revealing. The recorded sound is excellent. Here and there the splendid Steinway in the Berlin studio has the sort of clangour in the very loudest passages that might have alarmed Debussy but generally the instrument and playing sound ideally reproduced. But be warned: this is the sort of music, playing and recording that will make some collectors consider upgrading their hi-fi equipment, to extract every last ounce of colour and nuance that composer, performer and engineers have captured here.

Roy Westbrook


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