‘I love pictures almost as much as music,’ Debussy once said, offering a telling insight into his creative life and his remarkable two books of Images for piano. Published in 1905 and 1907, each volume contains three pieces exploring, to coin Debussy’s own phrase, ‘the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry’.
Titles suggest a picture or mood for each piece, but these are also joyous explorations of piano sonority and aural colour, earning them a firm place in the keyboard repertoire. There are the evocations of water (‘Reflets dans l’eau’) and bells (‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’) that helped earn Debussy his ‘Impressionist’ label.
But his inspirations are varied: in ‘Hommage à Rameau’ he honours the French Baroque, while ‘Mouvement’ is as abstract as its title suggests. Debussy turns his gaze to the East in ‘La lune qui descend sur la temple qui fut’, but stays closer to home for the concluding ‘Poissons d’or’, which depicts the carp in a Japanese lacquered picture he owned.
The best recording of Debussy's Images
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Chandos CHAN 10497 (2008)
Debussy expected pianists to follow the letter of his scores. But he also wanted more: an imaginative ear and an ability to interpret the spirit of the music. The best recordings of his Images do both, and with so many excellent versions around, it comes down to personal taste. Both Books have fared well on disc, although it’s a tantalising disappointment that Sviatoslav Richter, Nelson Goerner and Emil Gilels only recorded the first book, and Friedrich Gulda only the second.
But for a complete recording that captures the distinctive character of each Image in excellent sound, and for a truly classy display of pianism, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is the one to hear. The Frenchman, whose complete Debussy piano works is one of the stand-out recording projects of recent times, plays with the ‘fluid transparency’ of the composer himself, as recalled by his friend and biographer Louis Laloy.
In ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, the surface gleams seductively, like a pool on a hot day, with every ripple and droplet crystal clear. There’s cool suppleness in ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ and meditative calm in ‘La lune qui descend’. Bavouzet takes ‘Hommage à Rameau’ a shade too fast perhaps, but does give this sarabande a winning delicacy. And he raises a smile with the quixotic carp, while his fleet ‘Mouvement’, light and precise as Debussy requests, conjures up the image of a whirling spinning-top.
Three more great recordings of Debussy's Images
Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
Philips Collectors Edition E4757301 (1990)
Zoltán Kocsis is alive to every possibility for colour and nuance, varying his pedaling and touch for each piece, each texture, each articulation. Particularly remarkable is the ancient, monumental quality with which he imbues ‘Hommage à Rameau’ – it’s quite different in feel to any other interpretation. The Hungarian pianist’s ‘Mouvement’ has a restless energy that stills into rapt silence, a parallel to the darting ‘Poissons d’or’ that concludes the work.
It’s all done with such imagination that it would be a shoo-in for best recommendation but for one movement: ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’. The bells ring clear and true – the most bell-like of any pianist – but the fast tempo isn’t what Debussy asked for, and the various tempo changes seem drastic. But if you can live with it, then this is a wonderful recording.
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
BIS BISCD1105 (2001)
‘Everyone plays my music too loudly,’ said Debussy, while pianist Marguerite Long recalled that ‘his nuances ranged from triple ppp to forte’, and that ‘he only played in half tints, like Chopin, without any hardness of attack.’ Noriko Ogawa isn’t afraid to play quietly in this finely-grained account of Debussy’s Images, with her ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, in particular, painted on a soft canvas. Nor does she short-change the louder end of the dynamic spectrum.
Her approach works to the advantage of the hushed, muffled atmosphere of ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’, and her delicately etched, beautifully still ‘La lune qui descend’. There’s a certain coolness to Ogawa’s emotional temperature, but she also brings a colourful sparkle and imaginative flair to the music, turning ‘Mouvement’ into a flurried blur and luxuriating in ‘Poissons d’or’.
Ivan Moravec (piano)
Vox CDX5103 (1983)
The great Czech pianist Ivan Moravec is renowned for his Chopin playing, and he is also wonderful in Debussy, bringing to it silky tone, liquid line and immaculate pedalling. Those qualities are ideal for ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, which glides by languidly but precisely; perhaps a degree more flexibility would have met Debussy’s tempo rubato marking.
But in ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ Moravec hits on a tempo that feels natural, allowing the bells to sing through the exquisitely judged layers of sound. He is elegant and nimble in ‘Mouvement’; indeed, throughout he plays with poise and refinement, though never at the expense of colour or life. There’s a buoyant spring to his ‘Poissons d’or’, contrasting with the internal stillness that the music coalesces around in ‘La lune qui descend’.
Find out more about Debussy and his works here
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.