Debussy's piano music seems rather to be in vogue at the moment and the two complete surveys by French pianists Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Pascal Rogé make a fascinating comparison. The discs reviewed here are the third volumes in their respective series but only have a handful of shorter pieces in common. The bulk of Rogé's disc is taken up by the two sets of Images and Pour le Piano while Bavouzet gives us the Suite bergemasque and Children's Corner, along with what he calls 'the isolated salon pieces or those of the late period.'
It is the shorter pieces which are common to both discs – the early Rêverie and the later Berceuse Héroïque, Page d'album and Hommage à Haydn – that obviously give the best demonstration of these pianists' respective styles. As I noted in my review of the second disc in Bavouzet's cycle, his Debussy is at times muscular, often favouring clarity over atmosphere, avoiding the temptation to create the washes of colour that some would advocate in this so-called impressionist music. Rogé's performances are probably more conventional, yet his softer grained approach is every bit as persuasive. It's testament to both artists' quality that the two styles are equally convincing in their hands.
Rogé strikes me as particularly fine in the Images where his ear for sonority and broad palette of colours are especially impressive. He maintains a stunningly rapt atmosphere for 'et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût' and sustains a daringly slow tempo for 'Hommage à Rameau'. In 'mouvement' he mixes virtuosity with a delightful lightness of touch, as he does in L'isle joyeuse, which is for once truly joyful and playful, reaching an exultant climax. In Pour le piano he brings a real sense of excitement to the 'Prélude' but again it is the seductive, skipping lightness he brings to the 'Toccata' that is particularly enjoyable. These qualities are there in the other shorter pieces which complete the disc, culminating in an ethereal and touching 'Rêverie'.
Turning to Bavouzet's disc requires a certain amount of re-adjustment to a more brilliant, overtly virtuosic way of performing this music. This is perhaps exemplified by his way with the most famous piece in the Suite bergamasque – the ubiquitous 'claire de lune'. Roger Nichols' liner note points out how the piece's original title, 'Promenade Sentimentale', should warn 'against turning the composer's Andante into an Adagio' and some might initially feel that Bavouzet's performance has taken this rather too literally. For me, though, his pointedly unsentimental way with the piece seems to wash away years of lazy convention in interpreting Debussy as simply a musical impressionist; here it sparkles with a crystalline beauty often missing in slower, more heavily pedalled readings.
Bavouzet's approach in some of the earlier pieces, including the rest of the Suite Bergamasque, strikes me as near ideal. In the suite, the 'Prélude' is suitably majestic while the 'Minuet' has a lovely bounce to it, capped by an almost imperceptibly light ascending scale at its close; the 'Passepied' and the Danse bohémienne from 1890 that follows are wonderfully alert. The clarity and intelligence he brings to his playing is hugely persuasive and his 2nd Arabesque is as clean and snappy as I've heard it. That's not to say, though, that he cannot conjure up the beautiful, moonlit world of 'Rêverie' and his performances of the later pieces are equally convincing. In Children's corner, the clarity of his playing is matched by an ability to keep a straight face through all the playfulness of Debussy's writing, which if anything serves to emphasise its humour.
Both of these discs are recorded in quite exemplary sound. It's in some way a relief that with little duplication in the programmes it's not a matter of having to recommend either one or the other. In the end, these two pianists' different approaches show us the dangers of having preconceived ideas of how a composer's music should be performed. Bavouzet has to be congratulated again throwing new light on familiar pieces while Rogé simply emphasises the ongoing validity of a more conventional yet excellently executed approach.
By Hugo Shirley