Debussy: Complete Works for Piano Vol.4: Images & Études

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Chandos CHAN10497)

21 November 2008 5 stars

Bavouzet DebussyIn his own little note in the booklet, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet writes of how he is bringing his complete survey of Debussy's piano music to an end with the 'most resolutely virtuoso works'. While many of the previous discs have included miniatures and vignettes, all turned in with impeccable control by the French pianist, we now get a chance to really hear him stretch his legs.

In Chandos' typically clear sound, Bavouzet produces some pretty stunning results. As he's made clear in previous instalments, his is a Debussy not shrouded in the wafty mists of impressionism but one where every detail is offered up fresh and sparkling. He manages, though, to lose none of the Romanticism of the two books of Images – as one might fear could happen – but the leaner, more objective writing of the Études comes across in a truly excellent performance that can lay claim to being the finest now in the catalogue.

Although Bavouzet's technique rises to the challenges of the Études with all the mechanical precision and pinpoint accuracy one could ever want, it's his ability to imbue the music with wry Debussian wit and an ever-alert ear to the finest sonority that makes this playing not only exemplary in terms of the delivery of the notes, but also irresistibly enjoyable and thought-provoking. Listen, for example to the sheer bravura of the 'pour les huit doigts', the effortlessly dispatched study 'pour les notes répétées' or the straight-faced humour of the affectionate opening dig at Czerny's finger excercises.

Bavouzet's reading of the beautiful 'pour les sonorités opposées' has all the colours and subtlety one could wish for and the 'Étude retrouvée' – a realization of the first version of 'pour les Arpèges composées' by Roy Howatt – is an added bonus, despatched with consummate brilliance, as is the final version. He doesn't quite match Uchida's manic energy in the final 'pour les accords' but produces just as much in the way of powerful implacability, while he is outstanding in the central section, where, as Roger Nichols puts it in his booklet note, Debussy 'gives utterance to music of indescribable tenderness and melancholy, as if saying a last farewell to the world of illusion.'

The magician Debussy conjures up plenty of illusions in Images, though, and it's with those two sets of three pieces that Bavouzet opens his disc. There has already been a couple of excellent recordings of Images in the past year – Trpčeski's on EMI and Rogé's on Onyx – but Bavouzet tops them both in my opinion. His ability to capture all the colour and nuance of these works in performances of revelatory clarity – impressive enough in the Études – is perhaps even more astonishing here. There's never any feeling of a loss of atmosphere but such is Bavouzet's total control of the keyboard that the closeness of the recording – never unrealistically close but giving the pianist nowhere to hide – which could easily have resulted in hardness in the piano sound is only ever an advantage, allowing the listener to get closer to the music.

Bavouzet makes the two recent recordings mentioned above sound almost timid in comparison and it's refreshing to hear the whole dynamic range of the piano exploited and explored. This brings extra sparkle to 'Reflets dans l'eau' and greater majesty to 'Hommage a Rameau'. 'Mouvement' on the other hand is turned into a breathtaking study in velocity – Rogé and in particular Trpčeski sound pedestrian in comparison – but with no lack of elegance or playfulness. 'Cloches à traves les feuilles' and 'Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut', however, show quite what beauty of sound Bavouzet's approach can bring, while I'm not sure I've ever heard the 'Poissons d'or' imbued with such vibrancy and energy.

In short, then, a triumphant finale to a revelatory series and a must for fans of Debussy and piano music.

By Hugo Shirley