'...there is a balance of clarity and lyricism that immediately distinguish the pianist's work.' - International Piano
This is the fourth in the series of recordings of all of Debussy's piano works by the distinguished French pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. I had reviewed the third in the series, giving it a rave: Debussy: Complete Works For Piano, Vol. 3. Others have liked the earlier entries in the series: Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 2, Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 1. If I had to characterize Bavouzet's playing I would say that it is lyrical and atmospheric while remaining utterly clear; he uses just the right amount of pedal and doesn't indulge in the smears of color that some pianists seem to feel Debussy requires. In sum, then his approach is perfect for Debussy as well as for Ravel Ravel: Complete Piano Works. One sees more easily, with his playing, why Debussy and Ravel are so often lumped together.
This disc contains the two series of Images and the two books of Études, which fit precisely on one CD -- 76 minutes. The former come from 1901 & 1907, the latter from 1915, and there are discernible differences in their construction. The Images are impressionistic tone poems with sometimes rhapsodic form while the latter concern themselves with specific piano technical problems and hew more to a classical formal mold. That said, there are still those hallmarks of Debussy's harmonic style that clearly mark them out as being by the same composer, whatever their superficial differences.
Of the six Images my own personal favorite is the first of them, 'Reflets dan l'eau' ('Reflections in the Water'). Bavouzet depicts tiny ripples in the water by emphasizing the wave-like form of the opening chords and later seems to be mimicking wind-swept spray with wide-ranging arpeggios underpinned by chromatic chords. This is pictorial playing of the best sort. 'Hommage à Rameau' doesn't sound like Rameau while yet depicting the harmonic purity of Rameau's music. Bavouzet plays it simply, reverently. 'Mouvement' is a whirlwind and in Bavouzet's hands one can see little wisps of leaves and dust chasing each other along the surface of the road. 'Cloches à travers les feuilles' ('Bells through the leaves') somehow conveys bell-sounds transmitted through a flickering or undulating medium. How in the world does Debussy make music so pictorial? 'Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut' ('And the moon descends on the temple that was') is the most whole-tonal of the Images, sounding gamelan-ish, otherworldly, a piece that particularly emphasizes non-cadential harmonic sequences. Bavouzet coaxes pianissimo mallet-instrument sounds from the piano. 'Poissons d'or' ('Goldfish') brings the koi on a Japanese lacquer to life, swimming in swirls of whole-tone water.
The Études are the last solo piano pieces Debussy wrote. Ostensibly pedagogic in intent, they are nonetheless some of the most valuable of his pianistic output. Given pedagogic titles -- 'For octaves', 'For eight fingers', 'For five fingers, after M. Czerny' -- they are little gems of atmospheric writing. Harmonically they are just a bit drier than the earlier works, and Bavouzet brings this out with a slightly more etched style. Some pianists pour impressionistic goo over these pieces, but they require utter clarity, and this Bavouzet provides. 'For thirds', for instance, is not a harmonic blur but a black-and-white pen drawing. 'For fourths' reminds us of the immense impact on Debussy that the Japanese Exposition of 1889 had on the youthful composer. But it is seen through the prism of Debussy's late style. One might possibly expect 'For sixths' to sound the least little bit like Brahms, or at least like Fauré -- two composers for whom sixth-chords in second position were hallmarks -- but no, this is slightly more chromatic Debussy, and Bavouzet avoids the temptation to prettify it. 'For eight fingers' has always sounded like a blizzard, in distinction to 'The Snow is Dancing' in the Children's Corner suite. Bavouzet's blizzard is chilly and exciting, but not frightening. 'For chromatic degrees' is playful, and it reminds us how playful all the études are in the main. Bavouzet sounds to be having a marvelous time with it. And so it goes. This recording is a triumph.
I nominate Bavouzet for the top echelon of Debussyists. A wonderful disc.