Debussy: Images; Études; Étude retrouvée

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LABELS: Tall Poppies
WORKS: Images; Études; Étude retrouvée
PERFORMER: Roy Howat (piano)
For many years Debussy’s Études were regarded as inferior works supporting the fallacious notion that his compositional prowess waned in his final years. In fact, the startling originality of the Études marks them out not merely as virtuosic exercises in piano or compositional technique but as the crowning achievement of Debussy’s writing for piano. Early champions were Walter Gieseking (EMI) and Yvonne Loriod, whilst Mitsuko Uchida (Philips) and Maurizio Pollini (DG) have been more recent advocates for these groundbreaking pieces. Like Martino Tirimo (IMP) before him, Roy Howat underlines his belief in the Études by starting his survey of Debussy’s piano works with them rather than the more usual Arabesques or Préludes.


Few people can match Howat’s intimate knowledge of Debussy’s music (he is a founding editor of the French government-sponsored Debussy Edition) and his conviction in the worth of the music is evident. Unfortunately, despite some beautifully refined moments, Howat seems to be afraid to lift the music off the page and bring it to life. Alongside Uchida’s dazzling account, the sixth Étude, pour les huit doigts, sounds distinctly two dimensional and the final Étude, pour les Accords, is ponderous. It is not just a matter of tempi or dynamics, but a willingness to revel in the subversive freedom which Debussy creates from his restricted raw materials. The problem extends to the Images. Despite a general similarity of tempo, Howat’s Reflets dans l’eau is a monochrome stagnant pool alongside the dappled light of Gieseking’s gently flowing stream. Christopher Dingle