, August 2011
I have suggested several times that the Debussy piano music cycles by Ogawa and Bavouzet (Chandos) are the most significant of recent surveys. The Bavouzet has been fairly speedy in its erection. Begun in 2006 it is now complete, maybe more than complete since the latest volume embraced piano transcriptions of some orchestral works. If Bavouzet intends to pursue this path he may have several more volumes in store. Nevertheless, as far as original piano music is concerned his series is finished.
Ogawa has built up her cycle much more slowly and patiently. Volume I, with much praised versions of the “Estampes” and “Images”, was set down in 2000. Succeeding volumes followed at two- or three-yearly intervals. The most recent, until now, was a really magnificent set of the “Etudes” (Vol. IV). Though Ogawa presumably doesn’t intend to delve into orchestral transcriptions she has nevertheless included several items—the two-hand version of the “Epigraphes antiques”, an enthralling performance of “La Boîte à joujoux” and some smaller pieces—which did not appear in earlier “canonical” cycles by Gieseking, Casadesus and others. Here, then, is her final volume, following the previous one at a due interval.
So it is surprising to say the least to discover that this last volume had existed all along. It was set down a few months before Vol. I and has been sitting unreleased for eleven years. BIS have explained to MusicWeb that, since Ogawa’s second sessions contained more substantial music, the decision was made to put this first disc on hold, record all the later works and then bring out the present CD of Debussy’s earlier pieces as the concluding volume. This would have been OK if the entire process had taken place over two or three years, but Ogawa is still a fairly young artist who has surely matured in the meantime. I would like to hear how she plays this music now.
But let me start by saying that this may well be the most beautiful Debussy disc in my collection. Ogawa’s sound is always limpid, her textures transparent, her phrasing natural and musical, her tempi unhurried but backed up by a superb sense of rhythm. I listened first to the “Suite Bergamasque” and could only wonder, in the “Prélude”, at how naturally she applies quite generous rubato without distorting either the line or the rhythmic motion. Debussy actually marked this piece “tempo rubato” and performers tend to divide between those who pull the music out of shape in their attempt to obey the instruction, and those who go prim and straight. Ogawa has the secret of it. Her “Menuet” and her “Passepied” are taken very gently, but with a rhythmic lilt that makes you smile. “Clair de lune” is played with real feeling yet free of romantic excess.
If I had begun at the beginning, though, with the first “Arabesque”, I might have had a few doubts. It’s certainly a very beautiful performance, the music flows gently and naturally from her fingers. But it is unusually slow and a little placid. At this point I turned to Bavouzet. He is quite a bit faster, but his actual sound is no less translucent and the music floats as if on air. In truth, Debussy marked this piece “Andantino con moto”. To my ears Bavouzet’s tempo is Allegretto while Ogawa’s is a full Andante. So maybe the right tempo is in the middle, but of the two I prefer Bavouzet.
The tables turn in the second “Arabesque”, though. The clarity and evenness of Ogawa’s triplets is marvellous pianism in itself, but above all she uses her slower tempo to bring out the cheeky humour of the piece. Bavouzet by contrast sounds as if he has a train to catch.
The other piece about which I had some doubt is the “Ballade”. This, like the first “Arabesque”, is marked “Andantino con moto” and here, too, while on a phrase-by-phrase basis I admired the sheer beauty of Ogawa’s slow unfolding, she does little to disguise the sectional construction of the music, as a more ardent rendering can do to some extent. On the other hand, she is ravishing in the stronger slow pieces, the “Rêverie” and the “Nocturne”. But so, frankly, is Bavouzet. She is magical in the “Tarentelle styrienne” and scores notable successes with the “Valse romantique” and the “Mazurka”. Every time a record of Debussy’s early pieces heaves in sight my heart sinks at the thought I have to listen to these two again. Ogawa’s graceful elegance has won me over at last. I might even listen to them again for sheer pleasure. The pay-off of the “Mazurka” shows she can be bold when needs be and she’s quite cheeky with the “Danse bohémienne”.
And lastly, the most mature work here, “Pour le piano”, often interpreted in a dry neo-classical light. Ogawa’s pianism is all about colours. While Bavouzet’s “Toccata” is a brilliant display of fireworks, Ogawa’s sounds as if it has as much right to be called “Jardins sous la pluie” as the later piece that actually bears that name. Pure magic!
So has perfection come to an imperfect world? Well, when I started by saying this might be the most beautiful Debussy record in my collection, some might have detected an inherent reservation. Whatever Keats thought, I’m not sure that beauty is truth, or at least the only way to it. If heaven is really as full of angels sitting on clouds and playing harps as they say, this would surely have even a Trappist Monk longing for an unredeemed saxophone or two. Amid so much unremitting loveliness one may just sometimes wish for something bigger, riskier, even a little abrasive. In short, for Bavouzet. Ungrateful sod, aren’t I? But here we’re back to my opening point. For we are comparing Bavouzet pretty well as he is now with Ogawa eleven years ago. Ogawa’s superbly characterized “La Boîte à joujoux” and her magnificent “Etudes” suggest that she might herself provide this extra interpretative range today. So, grateful as I am for this truly beautiful record, I wish I had been allowed to hear it eleven years ago when it was made, and could now hear Ogawa’s latest recording of the same music.
But there it is. As things stand Ogawa and Bavouzet offer in any case the two essential Debussy cycles of our time. Ogawa is unfailingly beautiful, truly poetic, Bavouzet sometimes bolder and wider-ranging. But he can be ravishing too. On the downside, Ogawa at her least effective can be a little placid, Bavouzet at his can be over-assertive, even aggressive. Bavouzet also goes in for a lot of left-hand-before-right and split chords, which I suppose some people actually like. It’s a big drawback for me. As the two cycles are differently coupled, there’s no way you can get a bit of one and a bit of the other and still have all the music without duplications. So you have to throw in your lot completely with one or the other. Or, if you really love Debussy, get both.