There's a bit of a tendency these days to try and stick the 'impressionist' tag back onto Debussy. A recent concert including much of his orchestral music also featured projections of Monet and other painters. It's an easy tag to apply to the French composer but any attempts at creating a synaesthetic equivalence of this sort does neither party any justice. It's particularly refreshing then to hear Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's Debussy, which is characterised by clarity and controlled muscularity. The impressionist fog so often wrapped around this music has evaporated and we are left with scintillating, sparkling accounts of these works.
This is the second instalment in his survey of Debussy's complete works for piano and features a number of earlier, less-well known pieces alongside favourites such as Estampes, Pour le piano and L'isle joyeuse, which Bavouzet sees as 'the "concert" pieces… because of their more obvious virtuosity and accessibility'.
The disc opens with three early works which the pianist envisages as a tryptich. The Ballade composed around 1890, published originally as Ballade slave not, as Roger Nichols explains in his exemplary booklet note, because of anything Slavic about it, but simply to pander to the French taste for anything exotic. This sounds almost like Fauré and is played with touching simplicity by Bavouzet. There's an unmistakably Gallic character to the next piece, Valse Romantique, and even though this is a long way off fully-fledged Debussy, it is played with delicacy and affection.
The next work, a Danse from around 1890, originally called Tarentelle styrienne for similarly spurious reasons, gives Bavouzet a chance to stretch his legs and show the pinpoint dexterity and rhythmic accuracy that makes the rest of the disc so thrilling. The same virtues are there in his performances of the early Images (oubliées) from 1894, only the second movement of which, the 'Sarabande', was published in the composer's lifetime. First, as Nichols tells us, in a newspaper supplement in 1896 and then in slightly reworked form in Pour le piano. This movement is remarkable for its insistent melody and for its unmistakably Debussian harmonic language. The opening 'Lent' and the lengthily titled 'quelques aspects de "nous n'irons plus au bois" parce qu'il fait un temps insupportable' is a boisterous romp, giving Bavouzet once again a chance to show his powerful virtuosity; listen to how the arpeggios at 1'25 sparkle with brilliant clarity in his hands.
The pianist is no less impressive in the better known Estampes and Pour le piano. In the slower music he never just puts his pedal down to create a sonic wash: each texture sounds like it's been carefully thought out and although there's no lack of warmth in the sound, Bavouzet never loses any of Debussy's carefully worked counterpoint. Listen, for example, to 3'45 in 'Pagodes' from Estampes – there's some hugely impressive pianism as the arpeggios in the right hand glisten while he carefully voices the left hand to bring out the melodies with real warmth.
The disc concludes with Masques, L'isle joyeuse and …D'un cahier d'esquisses. The pianist once again sees these as a triptych in all but name. And he rises magnificently to the technical challenges of the first two pieces. Masques is despatched with muscular virtuosity and L'isle joyeuse shimmers seductively. In both, the sheer crystalline beauty of Bavouzet's playing is astonishing, evidence of a formidable technique. The disc closes with a touching rendition of …D'un cahier d'esquisses, Chandos' excellent engineering capturing the subtlety of the pianists broad tonal palette.
I'd missed the first instalment in this series but if this disc is anything to go by, this looks set to become a Debussy survey to be placed with the best.
By Hugo Shirley