Debussy: mages; Études

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: mages; Études
PERFORMER: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 460 247-2
There is some very beautiful piano-playing on these discs, which makes it all the harder to accept that ultimately I found them deeply unsatisfying. First, the good things: Thibaudet is a superlative technician, especially in terms of control of lightness and transparency. Images II comes off best, the echoing bells of ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ exquisitely layered and delicate, and the flashing fishtails of ‘Poissons d’or’ shimmering with lightness and subtlety. The trouble is that these gossamer textures appear to exist for the sake of their own beauty, rather than for the creation of the sensuous atmospheres so essential to Debussy – atmospheres which are notable for their absence here. At times, too, Thibaudet’s musical decisions can seem very peculiar. Why does he poke at the staccato fifths of ‘Mouvement’ so that they sound mannered and hard? The tone is dry and often flat – and not only for lack of pedal. Why doesn’t he give more musical shaping to the figurations of ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ or the Étude ‘Pour les degrés chromatiques’ (to take just two examples)? These, and parts of Children’s Corner, come out sounding sadly akin to what is sometimes called the ‘sewing machine’ school of French pianism. Thibaudet’s emotional detachment can work at times, but Debussy certainly shouldn’t sound as cold as this.

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By contrast, Zoltán Kocsis provides passionate, involving and meaty Debussy: he may fry fatter ‘Poissons’, but his ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ is fully thought out, the central line clear throughout, the decorations curled beautifully, and ‘Mouvement’ is filled with real élan. If you must have a French pianist’s recording of Images, try Pascal Rogé, who combines pearly tone with beautifully intimate atmospheres. In the Études, Mitsuko Uchida provides absolute dynamism; unlike Thibaudet, she makes you forget that these extraordinary works are called Studies. Without real emotional engagement and the application of a more profound, wider-ranging imagination, technical perfection can seem a little pointless. Jessica Duchen