Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a tremendous idea. Comparison versions of Debussy’s Images played by notable pianists recorded in the first half of the 20th century. It also gives the listener the opportunity to realize just how many possible responses there are to Debussy’s great scores.
The first of Images I receives no less than six alternative versions here. The adventure (for such this is) begins with the cavalier Ignacy Jan Paderewski, fluid and free with the letter of the score of “Reflets dans l’eau.” Marius-François Gaillard (1895–1956) was a pupil of Louis Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire. His 1928 Odéon recording, made in Paris, is remarkably well transferred, with a minimum of hiss and to-the-front positioning of
the piano sound. Clarity is important for Gaillard. High filigree sparkles. Twenty seconds swifter than Paderewski, he is less likely to linger in a Romantic fashion. His waters, at least, are clear. Next, a rather bathroom-like recording for Gieseking (London, 1936, from a Columbia original). We hear great Debussy-playing from a pianist clearly on home turf. Jean Doyen (1907–1982), a Marguerite Long pupil, is known (if at all) for being the first pianist to record Ravel’s Gaspard (May 1937) and Debussy’s Images I (in March 1943, from which the present performance is taken). Actually, Doyen is my preferred pianist here. The playing is clean-cut but not dry or academic, and there is a real sweep to the music. Artur Rubinstein’s clean 1945 reading (Hollywood, RCA Victor) will delight his many admirers. Finally, Michelangeli (no introductions required). This is early Michelangeli (London, 1948, just before that pianist’s New York debut), dignified and rarefied. The recording is decidedly muddy, though, leaving one to consider this as merely a foretaste of what was to come from this pianist. Michelangeli’s impulsive way with the central climax certainly eclipses his present bedfellows.
The Marcelle Meyer versions of “Hommage à Rameau” and “Poissons d’or” heard here are the ones recorded in Paris on 5/20/1947, issued on Discophiles Français. Further fruitful comparison can be made (this is pretty much a never-ending game, once one gets started) with Meyer’s live accounts captured on Tahra 64 (from Italian RAI, 4/4/1957, on a disc entitled, “Inédits Marcelle Meyer”). The later recording, fairly predictably, is of clearer sound. It is also transferred at a higher level, but the parallels of pianism and of interpretation are easily heard. The ease within the Debussian tongue is common to both. We are, in fact, only given two readings of “Hommage à Rameau,” Meyer’s marvelously restrained 1943 Paris version, surely the epitome of artifice in sound, and ultra-delicate, and Jean Doyen’s 1943 interpretation (his is the only complete Images I here), which, in contrast to his exemplary “Reflets dans l’eau,” seems ill at ease and rather seems to lose its way. Doyen’s finale, “Mouvement,” returns to the standard of his “Reflets dans l’eau” in its keen attention to detail and its sensitivité. Doyen is pitted against early Arrau here (New York, 1949, from an American Columbia). Unfortunately, the recording for the latter is unforgivably boomy, so one strains to hear Arrau’s famous tone. The recording also congests in louder passages.
The second book of Images provides as many insights. Gieseking and Arrau are featured for “Cloches à travers les feuilles.” There is plenty of surface noise present for Gieseking (1948 this time, but again recorded in London). I remain unsure as to why the booklet notes suddenly tell us that “Boucourechliev venerated Gieseking” here, a statement that comes from nowhere and returns there immediately. Gieseking’s playing is excellent, but he is trumped by the infinitely limpid Arrau (from the same 1949 New York sessions). There is only one version of “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût,” and that is by Meyer. Trademark rolled chords do not, for me, mar this exercise in transparency (the booklet annotator begs to differ).
A real coup is that one gets to hear the Catalan pianist Riccardo Viñes in “Poissons d’or.” This piece was actually dedicated to Viñes, who reads the score with some license. Recorded in Paris in 1930 (and issued by Columbia), the sound is remarkably fine. There is much to admire in Viñes’s interpretation. The rather muddy acoustic and thinly toned piano mars Gieseking’s version of 1937, and the recording struggles to cope with the climax. Rubinstein’s 1945 recording is perhaps predictably clearer in sonic terms (and is a full 50 seconds slower than Gieseking’s). It feels rather eccentric, though. The decision to end with Meyer was a finely judged one.
The current release includes a discography of recordings of Images on 78-rpm records between 1912 and 1949, as well as pianist biographies and lucid commentary. Very strongly recommended indeed.
-- Colin Clarke, FANFARE [7/2009]
Works on This Recording
Images for Piano, Set 1 by Claude Debussy
Ignace Jan Paderewski (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1905; France
Length: 45 Minutes 2 Secs.
Images for Piano, Set 2 by Claude Debussy
Walter Gieseking (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1907; France
Length: 26 Minutes 38 Secs.
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