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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Music - Volume 2
Préludes, première livre [42:54]
D’un cahier d’esquisses [04:48]
Pièce pour piano [00:58]
Hommage à Haydn [02:31]
The Little Nigar [01:58]
Children’s Corner [17:20]
La plus que lente [05:39]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
BIS BIS-CD-1205 [75:47]
Experience Classicsonline


This review was written in tandem with that of the third volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s ongoing cycle and should ideally be read in conjunction with it. Common to the two CDs are all the pieces here starting from “Pièce pour piano” – called “Morceaux de Concours” on Bavouzet’s disc. That way I can avoid repeating, as well as my introductory remarks, the reasons for which I find Ogawa at least as good, and often signally better in all these pieces. What I will repeat is my contention that, among recently completed or ongoing cycles, Ogawa’s and Bavouzet’s are the most significant. The present disc is far from new, having been issued in early 2003, but it has not been reviewed on MusicWeb and it would seem of some importance to establish how Ogawa’s first book of “Préludes” compares with that of Bavouzet, whose first volume was dedicated to both books.

Ogawa’s opening “Danseuses de Delphes” seems very slow, but this is such a universal failing that maybe it’s just me – and Debussy’s markings – that are out of step. She establishes a warm sonority, full yet translucent, never heavy or hard. I appreciated this the more in “Voiles” where the tempo seemed the natural one, again in “Les sons et les parfums” and indeed in the slower pieces generally. As noted à propos “La plus que lent”, she can take a very slow tempo yet not lose sight of the overriding rhythmic impulse, something she displays impressively in “Des pas sur la neige”. Amid the general fidelity, a couple of eccentricities stand out. When, in “Le vent dans la plaine”, the whirring semi-quavers give way to cascading falling chords, she makes a pause so great – both times – that I actually looked at my CD counter to see if it had stopped playing. A small pause could be in order – though Bavouzet makes none – but this makes no sense to me. Nor can I understand why “En serrant” and “crescendo” on the first page of “Les collines d’Anacapri” are interpreted as “En retenant” and “diminuendo”. Nevertheless, of the humorous ones this latter is well managed, and “La sérénade interrompue” especially so, but “Minstrels” is unduly pulled around and “La danse de Puck” is curiously slow and earthbound.

Ogawa does not lack weight where required, but this set of “Préludes” contains glimpses of an aspect of Debussy – well-known to the public through “La Mer” for orchestra – which is practically non-existent elsewhere in his piano music: that of sheer elemental fury. Her “Le Vent dans la plaine” hardly sets your teeth on edge, nor are the sudden outbreaks of wind at all frightening. “Ce qu’a vu la Vent d’Ouest” delivers more than the tame opening suggests, but a suggestion of good behaviour is never entirely left behind.

All this sounds like a lot of niggling over performances which leave an ultimate impression of translucent beauty and poise. Bavouzet brings a more questing, questioning mind to the job. His honing in on textures, though, involves a lot of playing with hands not quite together and split chords. This creates some fussy textures at the beginning of “Danseuses de Delphes” and reaches heights of grotesque self-parody in “Le sons et les parfums”. His exceptional control of nuance produces superfine results in “Des pas sur la neige” and a beautifully refined “La Fille aux cheveux de lin”. His “Le Vent dans la plaine” is no more elemental than Ogawa’s but, after a restrained beginning, he manages to unleash more of a storm in “Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest”. Whereas Ogawa plays “La Cathédrale engloutie” as written, Bavouzet supports the idea – also followed by Thiollier and deriving from a piano roll of Debussy’s own performance – that the composer got his note values muddled up. Certain passages which seem impossibly slow – especially if the opening chords are allowed to toll as slowly as they seem to require – are therefore played in double tempo. The idea being that Debussy wrote white notes but meant black ones. Each artist provides strong projection of his or her view. As time goes on I find the “Debussy-wrote-it-wrong” theory more and more convincing. Bavouzet starts “Minstrels” better in time than Ogawa, but too loudly. He is scarcely any faster than her in “La danse de Puck”. I cannot fathom how anyone who has heard Gieseking could feel this will do – or even anyone who hasn’t heard Gieseking, quite frankly, since Debussy’s markings seem quite clear.

There, I’ve said the word and I shouldn’t have. Gieseking. Gieseking can be a doubtful proposition in the minor pieces, many of which he learnt for the recordings, and it sounds it, but in works like the “Préludes” which he’d played all his life he remains unassailable. However, passing from the present two examples of superb modern engineering, the acclimatisation process was not easy. It has to be said that those unwilling to make allowances for historical sound may not have the patience to go back to these 1950s efforts. The translucency of Gieseking’s touch nevertheless lives on. And so does his volatility, something we rarely encounter in today’s more static interpretations. The sudden fortissimos in “Le vent dans la plaine” are awesome and in “Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest” he sounds like a mad genius hitting everything in sight, though actually most of the notes are right. Thiollier made some attempt to recapture this volatility and at the Naxos price his CD of the “Préludes” may be a useful supplement to whichever calmer version you choose.

Returning to the present pair, in truth the first book of “Préludes” seems the weakest link in both their cycles to date. Bavouzet attempts more but maybe of the two I’d sooner hear Ogawa.

I haven’t mentioned “D’un cahier d’esquisses” – Bavouzet plays this on his volume 2. Ogawa’s warm, glistening sonorities and Bavouzet’s more tightly-drawn lines produce two of the finest performances I know.

Christopher Howell

Postscript

I was in two minds whether to write the following. In the end, I would not wish some bright spark to come up with: “But doesn’t Chris Howell remember that he once wrote of ‘La plus que lent’ that ‘this piece alone would suffice to prove her place among the great pianists’,” or words to that effect? And yes, you’ve guessed it, the “her” in question wasn’t Noriko Ogawa it was Joyce Hatto, under whose name Ogawa’s performance was fraudulently circulated (as was also “Children’s Corner”, but I never heard that). Admittedly, that’s the sort of hyperbolic phrase one writes after one has been swept away by a fine performance of the “Etudes” (stolen from Margit Rahkonen). Ultimately, can we really take just one piece as evidence of pianistic “greatness”? Certainly, Ogawa’s “La plus que lent” is superior to a good many, including Gieseking’s hasty affair. I felt her “Boîte à joujoux” (on volume 3) suggested greatness. Greatness drips unmistakably from every pore of Gieseking’s “Préludes”. Well, I was sold a pup and I bought it. I can at least console myself that Ogawa’s “La plus que lent” alone would suffice to prove her among today’s finest Debussians. The stolen version was speeded up somewhat, I understand. My “Hattos” are up in the attic and they’re going to stay there so I haven’t compared the two.


 


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