Saturday 3 February 2024

It's not British, but...Claude Debussy's Études on Hyperion

Contrasted to Debussy’s Préludes and Images, the Études are hardly popular. Listeners and recital goers may have been led to believe that these “Studies” are dry, academic, and having no independent artistic worth. Listening to the present recording puts this misapprehension to rest. 

The twelve Études, L143, date from 1915, at a time when Debussy was producing a new edition of Chopin’s Studies. They were dedicated to the memory of the Polish composer. As is clear from the titles, each one addresses a particular pianistic “difficulty” of “finger gymnastics.” The first set includes the Czerny-inspired five fingers “exercise” followed by several explorations of harmonic intervals: double thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves. The last Étude in Book One calls for eight fingers and is supposed to be played without the use of the thumb of either hand. It is a tour de force that involves rapid scales, glissandi, variable time signatures and accurate phrasing. The second book features complex chromaticism, ornamentation, repeated notes, the opposed sonorities of “light and shade,” arpeggios and massive chordal structures.

Debussy himself remarked that the Études must serve as “a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands.” In the preface to the score, which is meant to discuss fingering, he omits any reference to this problem and suggests that “If you want a thing well done, do it yourself.”

The question that begs itself is whether these Études are suitable for the recital room or are the preserve of the conservatoire. They are challenging at every level, and, within the confines of formal exercises, they incorporate much of Debussy’s earlier piano styles including Impressionism, and his idiosyncratic used of “rhythm, harmony, tone colour and dynamics.” Debussy’s biographer, Edward Lockspeiser, has insisted that the Études are “perhaps the greatest of his piano works...representing a summary of the composer’s entire pianistic creation.”

Listening to Steven Osborne’s performance on this CD, gives a definite sense that these late piano pieces are artful rather than just an academic exercise. There is a perfect fusion of technical prowess and artistic subtlety.

As a little bonus, Osborne has recorded the six-page sketch, Étude retrouvée, also dating from 1915. It has been realised by Roy Howat. This is an early version of the eleventh study, For compound arpeggios. It has little in common with the published study, save the key of A flat, and the use of arpeggios. It abounds with Debussy-ian magic.

Pour le piano, L95, was completed in 1901. The suite consists of three numbers: Prelude, Sarabande and Toccata. Once again, he has eschewed picturesque titles in favour of something more “classical.” The central stately Sarabande was originally written in 1894, and was dedicated to Yvonne Lerolle, the daughter of the painter Henri Lerolle. It was reworked for the present suite in 1901, with the removal of “some slightly obtrusive chromaticisms.” Osborne has recorded the original Sarabande on Hyperion CDA68390. The first and final pieces reflect the harpsichord writing of the eighteenth-century composers François Couperin and Jean-Phillipe Rameau. Debussy has brought his own melodic and harmonic language, including the whole tone scale. The Prelude and the Toccata feature brilliant bravura figurations and a vibrant perpetual motion, respectively.

Some commentators belittle La plus que lente, L128, regarding it as “one of the least consequential of Debussy’s piano compositions.” This “slower than slow waltz” was written in 1910 and may have been intended for a projected third volume of Images. This was never fulfilled. It has an almost Poulenc-ian sense of being “half parody, half earnestness.”  Certainly, it gives the impression of having all the charm of a Parisian café waltz, imbued with a touch of Hungarian Roma flair, as well as hints of jazz.

I guess that the Berceuse héroïque, L140, is seldom played. Its full title is Berceuse héroïque pour rendre hommage a S.M. le Roi Albert 1 er Belgique et à ses soldiers. It was included in King Albert’s Book published by the Daily Telegraph in 1914. This was a tribute to the Belgian King and People “from representative men and women throughout the world.” It was designed to raise funds for the embattled nation. It included tributes by Thomas Hardy, Winston Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Rackham, and the Aga Khan. There was prose, verse, illustrations, and Debussy’s Berceuse. This is a desolate, war-weary piece, despite the attempt to include the Belgian national anthem in the middle section which does little to raise the spirits, despite a few “distant fanfares.”

The liner notes, printed in English, French and German, are devised by the French music specialist, Roger Nichols. They give a splendid insight into the pieces on this CD. There is a resume of Steven Osborne. The cover features an evocative Textile Design (c.1915) by the Scottish architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Steven Osborne brings technical agility and remarkable interpretative skills to these performances. They are replete with magic, great beauty, and a sympathetic understanding. This is complimented by a vibrant recording.

Track Listing:
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Études L143 (1915)
Pour le piano L95 (1894-1901)
La plus que lente L128 (1910)
Berceuse héroïque L140 (1914)
Étude retrouvée (1915) (early version of L143 No.11, realised by Roy Howat, (b.1951))
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. 4 August 2021 (Étude retrouvée), 7-9 December 2022, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Hyperion CDA68409
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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