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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
12 Études [42:22]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Études Op 33 [14.19]
Julian Riem (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Grosser Konzertsaal, Munich
TYXART TXA18100 [56.41]

German pianist, Julian Riem, has won a number of international piano competitions and is well known as a chamber musician and song accompanist. He has released a number of chamber music and song recordings and this is his first solo recording. The two works on this disc were composed within one year of each other - the Debussy in 1915 and the Szymanowski in 1916. Both are exceptionally demanding works technically although the musical demands are equally important and it is important for the performer not to lose sight of these.

Debussy wrote his Études in the summer 1915 when he was suffering from terminal cancer. He was fearful that he might not live to complete the work and in October 2015 he wrote: “I write like a madman or like one who is condemned to die the next morning”. They are dedicated to the memory of Frederic Chopin and the Polish composer’s Études provided the model for Debussy although they are also infused with the virtuosity of Liszt. Debussy wrote of them: “These Études conceal a rigorous technique beneath the flowers of harmony”.

Julian Riem is certainly up to the daunting technical demands of the work and he offers a persuasive performance. Pour les cinq doigts opens in an unassuming way in the school room of Monsieur Czerny but before long Riem uses Debussy’s cheeky dissonances to throw a spanner in the works. The opening of the étude in thirds is relatively dry but thereafter Riem produces a shifting kaleidoscope of colours. The étude in octaves is muscular and full of Lisztian bravura while there is some exceptionally brilliant finger-work in Pour les huit doigts.

Riem produces some gorgeous Romantic colouring in Pour les agréments while the repeated notes of the ninth étude are clean and acerbic. Occasionally, Riem’s playing is a little rigid e.g. in Pour les Sixtes and Pour les sonorities opposes where he could have created a greater feeling of space and allowed us to wallow more in Debussy’s shifting web of tone colours. The rippling arpeggios of the penultimate étude are beautifully shaped and the playful mischief of the central section is well characterised. In the final étude Riem captures the Bartokian brashness of the outer section before driving the set to a successful conclusion.

Szymanowski wrote his Op.33 Études when he was living at his parents’ country estate in what is now Ukraine. They are shorter than the Debussy Études (some of them are less than a minute long) and Szymanowski marked them to be played attacca. Szymanowski includes a homage to both Debussy and Chopin and he experiments with a dissonant sound world paving the way for more modernist 20th Century works. Once again Riem’s technique is fully up to the technical challenges posed by Szymanowky and he is highly attuned to the composer’s dissonant experimental idiom. He also displays a cultivation and poetic sensibility in his playing which comes to the fore in the homage to Chopin.

Overall, there is some exceptionally fine playing on this disc and it is an excellent first solo outing. Riem’s performance of the Debussy cannot quite match the cultivated sensibility of Uchida but it is a fascinating account that deserves to be heard. The Szymanowski Études are less well known and Riem’s compelling account certainly make a case for them to be performed in the concert hall much more often.

Robert Beattie

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