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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
12 Études (1915) [41:22]
Étude retrouvée Modéré (realised by Roy Howat) (1915/1977) [3:50]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit (1908) [19:42]
Joseph Moog (piano)
rec. 2017, SWR Studio Kaiserlauern, Südwestrundfunk, Germany
ONYX 4204 [64:54]

The Debussy centenary year draws to a close, and speaking as an ardent fan, I’m pleased that his music continues to be spotlighted in new releases. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several this year. For the German pianist Joseph Moog this is his first foray on disc into the composer’s music, and the pairing of the 12 Études with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit seems apposite as both creations were composed under the gaze and in the spirit of Franz Liszt.

Debussy’s Douzes Études consist of two books, each comprised of six studies. They date from the summer of 1915, just three years before his untimely demise. They were spurred on by his work on an edition of Chopin's Études. The recent onset of cancer presaged a feeling of latent death and, for someone who had previously worked on his compositions laboriously, he now wrote "like a madman". There’s no doubt that he held them in great esteem. They call for a high level of technical accomplishment from the performer; that said, though, their musical value far outweighs their virtuosic demands.

A hallmark of this pianist’s discography is its sense of adventure, with recordings of Anton Rubinstein’s Fourth Concerto and Moritz Moszkowski’s Piano Concerto being just two particular favourites of mine. The latter I had the good fortune to review in 2015. I mention this appetite to explore less trodden territory, as Debussy’s Twelve Études have taken something of a backseat to many of his other piano works, being shirked by many pianists. Moog’s emphasis on textural clarity and skill at revealing detail is a strong positive for me. He is blessed with a sympathetic acoustic which highlights every nuance, and a responsive piano. Added to that, he has the technical mastery to confront the formidable challenges these works throw at the performer. Although Mitsuko Uchida’s version still retains its classic status, Moog certainly gives her a run for her money.

We open with ‘Pour les cinq doigts’, a parody of a Czerny exercise. The simple five-finger passage begins innocently enough, but is soon transformed into a spectacular vehicle for some startling orchestral sonorities. The pianist coaxes a beguiling sonic blend in No.3, ‘Pour les quartes’, from the luminous opening figurations through a succession of contrasting tonal hues. The textural clarity of Moog’s playing pays dividends in No. 6, ‘Pour les huit doigts’, adding sheen and polish to the waves of coruscating ripples. In total contrast, No 10, ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’, is reflective and pensive and Moog evokes a floating mystical quality, transporting us to another world. We are bathed in an intoxicating wash of pearl-like sonorities in No. 11, ‘Pour les arpèges composés’. The chordal leaps of No. 12, ‘Pour les accords’ appear to present no challenge to the pianist, and we end the cycle in grand style.

As a bonus, we are treated to ‘Étude retrouvée Modéré’, a thirteenth etude, originating from sketches discovered amongst some of the composer's papers in 1977. Thanks to Roy Howat there is now a playable version. The title in the manuscript is ‘Pour les arpèges composés’, providing a tenuous link to the étude of the same name in Book 2, though none of the material is similar. This newcomer luxuriates in lush, intoxicating roulades. It’s an absolute delight.

This authoritative account of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit stands side by side with the very best versions I know, including those by Michelangeli and Argerich, which head the bill. Moog sees a work of epic proportions and gets to the heart of each piece, capturing its individual character. The mischievous, mercurial and seductive ‘Ondine’ contrasts with the sombre, portentous and menacing toll of ‘Le Gibet’. ‘Scarbo’, depicting the nightmarish antics of a goblin, is an impressionistic tour-de-force. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Moog’s latest offering. The combination of superb interpretations and unbeatable sound is a winning formula. This release constitutes a worthy tribute for the Debussy centenary. 

Stephen Greenbank


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