Debussy tended to write his orchestral works in short score, meaning essentially in a version more or less playable at the piano. And this, the final disc in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's outstanding traversal of all of Debussy's piano music, is what we get here, a pianist playing pieces we know much better in their orchestral garb. All three of these scores -- Khamma, Jeux, and La Boîte à Joujoux -- were ballets. And ballets tend to need a piano reduction so that ballet companies could rehearse them without having to have an orchestra present.
Khamma (1910-1912), an 'Egyptian ballet', was never completely orchestrated by Debussy because the dancer who commissioned it was unwilling to provide the huge orchestra Debussy felt the work required. Hence he only finished orchestrating about a fifth of the score. Eventually Charles Koechlin finished the orchestration under Debussy's watchful eye and the piece was premièred (in concert, not as accompaniment for a ballet) in 1924, six years after Debussy's death. It was never danced until 1947, and it remains one of Debussy's least known works. The score is episodic in illustration of various aspects of the life and death of the Egyptian priestess Khamma. It contains some forward thinking harmonies and gestures. Bavouzet brings it to life with his fine attention to color and precise articulation.
Jeux (Games) must have one of the oddest scenarios of any ballet, taking place on a tennis court. It was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, whose choreography, Debussy said, 'trampled over my poor rhythms like some weed.' The première was greeted with bemused incomprehension. And then a couple of weeks later Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was premièred and in all the hubbub about it Jeux disappeared from the scene until years later it joined the concert repertoire, although still somewhat rarely played. The music, however, is one of Debussy's finest works -- I'm particularly fond of a recording of the orchestral version by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Debussy: Nocturnes; Jeux -- and Debussy himself made the piano version. Bavouzet plays the light-hearted, alternately flirty, seductive and ecstatic music in masterly fashion.
La Boîte à Joujoux (The Box of Toys) is described as 'a ballet for children'. Debussy wrote it for his beloved daughter Emma (nicknamed Chouchou) for whom he had earlier written the Children's Corner Suite. The composer envisioned it as being performed by marionettes but then decided he wanted children dancing all the parts. He never saw it performed and when it was premièred in 1919 it was danced by adults. It is one of Debussy's most lighthearted and unaffected scores. It quotes a number of familiar tunes (e.g., the Soldiers' March from 'Faust' and Mendelssohn's Wedding March, as well as an English nursery song sung by Chouchou's English nanny). The scenario has a cardboard soldier falling in love with a doll who spurns him for the love of Punch.
Bavouzet includes a note about the requirements for playing these three scores. La Boîte à Joujoux is fairly straightforward as Debussy prepared the piano version very carefully. Khamma is altogether different in that it requires more than the usual two staves, not all of which can be played without overdubbing (which Bavouzet decided not to do); the pianist has to make judgments about what to include and what to leave out. Bavouzet decided to do his best by imitating what can be heard in the orchestral version. One can hear some differences between the piano and orchestral versions but it is actually amazing what Bavouzet is able to pull off. Jeux is even more difficult, indeed unplayable in some places. And at the same time there are some places where the writing is so thin that it is impossible for the pianist to make up for the piano's lack of orchestral color. Again, I am amazed at how well Bavouzet makes us hear, at least in our mind's ear, the orchestral fabric, and he adds something in terms of clarity of structure, something that sometimes does not come through in orchestral performance. (In his notes he says that Jeux is one of the most difficult things he's ever tried to play.)
Of the five CDs in Bavouzet's Debussy traversal, this is probably the least essential, but for all that it is utterly fascinating for those who might want to go beyond the usual Debussy piano oeuvre and hear yet more of Debussy's utterly original piano writing.