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Christopher Howell
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Volume 2 of François-Joël Thiollier’s Debussy cycle, which I’m belatedly discovering, contains the popular Children’s Corner and the charming Little Negro together with two quite large works which don’t always get into surveys of Debussy’s solo piano music. La boîte à joujoux was intended as a ballet for children or marionettes and the piano score was completed in 1913. This was presumably not intended as an autonomous performing version but a basis from which to work, for Debussy began orchestration the following year, leaving it unfinished at his death. His friend André Caplet, who also made an orchestral version of Children’s Corner, completed it for performance in 1919 under Inghelbrecht. I have to admit I don’t remember ever hearing the orchestral score – or the piano one – but as played here there is nothing to suggest it was not originally intended for piano if you did not know, though it is sparing of Debussy’s usual pianistic effects.

This is late, rarefied Debussy and without any stage action it seems disconcertingly fragmentary. The Gounod and Bizet quotations are introduced with Satie-like wit; these and the introduction of a zany version of The Little Negro to represent the English soldier may be the most memorable moment. The third tableau seems the most complete musically. The work might grow on you with time. Thiollier sounds as if he is improvising it on the spot, and this seems the most likely approach to bring it to life. Something a bit more classically strict would be needed on the orchestra, but there would be greater colour to counteract it.

The Epigraphes antiques were completed in 1914 for piano duet, though they were partly based on music written in 1900. Debussy published a version for solo piano the same year as the duet version. It is the latter which is more often heard, in so far as these six pieces are heard at all. Here again, I have to confess previous ignorance of this music in either version. I can only say that, though I suppose Debussy must have removed quite a lot of notes to make it work with only two hands, it sounds perfectly complete in this form. The music is related to the Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs, of which Debussy’s vocal settings are rather better known. This means that there is not the glorious variety to be found in the Estampes, Images and Préludes, but even so it is surprising that pianists who love these latter sets have not seized upon the Epigraphes. After all, just as you don’t have to play the others by the bookful, you could slip one or two of these into a mixed Debussy group. I’d particularly like to try out nos.4 and 6. Thiollier creates a convincing world of mournful mystery.

In The Little Negro, which opens the programme, he is naughty but nice. He opens at quite a lick, similar to Gieseking but less relentless. Then at the second theme he slides in almost as if he’s going to play the big tune from Rhapsody in Blue. Theoretically it’s wrong but I love it and it gives life to a piece that usually sounds merely pretty.

In Children’s Corner we must again close our eyes and let Thiollier do his own thing. In theory I think the poetry of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum should emerge from very even playing of the semiquavers, as though someone really is playing a Clementi study. Gieseking and Rogé would seem to think so too. Thiollier leans on individual notes, stretching the rhythm, yet how bewitching he can be. Pianist, acoustics and engineers have combined to create something not far off Gieseking’s inimitably translucent sound in this music, though Gieseking himself was far more classical in his approach. Given that Thiollier’s fingers know where to find the magic in Debussy, and that his liberties seem to arise from an inborn sympathy with the music, best just take him on his own terms. The real test of Thiollier as a Debussy test will come in the remaining three volumes, but so far I’m a fan.


"earns a recommendation"

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