Debussy: 12 Etudes / Mariangela Vacatello

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DEBUSSY 12 Etudes. Estampes. Deux Arabesques. L’Isle Joyeuse Mariangela Vacatello (pn) BRILLIANT 94371 (76:40)

Every so often—perhaps inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s eponymous poem—I contemplate things that might have been, and quite frequently my contemplations involve music: What would Beethoven’s 10th have sounded like? How much richer would we be today had Brahms not destroyed his early string quartets out of mortal fear of being called an epigone? Would the world be a different place had Dinu Lipatti been able to carry out his wish to record The Well-Tempered Clavier ? One of the reasons I find these questions so fascinating is because we can neither know their answer nor can we rely on what we do know to hypothesize it—after all, Beethoven’s Ninth is strikingly different from his Eighth; Brahms’s lost string quartets are forever gone; and Lipatti never got around to record a single prelude and fugue by Bach. Before hearing this new recording featuring the young pianist Mariangela Vacatello, it had never dawned on me that Debussy’s late piano works—his set of 12 Etudes for piano—present the perfect Borgesian riddle: Would Debussy have abandoned the Impressionist idiom had he lived another few years, or would we be speaking of Debussy’s Impressionism merely as a phase that eventually yielded to a new musical language?

You may be wondering how my musings about where Debussy’s music may have ended up had the composer not succumbed to cancer at age 56 relate to the task at hand. Well, I respectfully submit that they are relevant here because what I enjoyed the most about Vacatello’s recording is how exquisitely and unapologetically she conveys the striking novelty of these masterpieces. Like Mitsuko Uchida in her classic Philips recording, Vacatello does not unduly look for Impressionism in the etudes, nor does she try to tame these visionary and occasionally wild scores. She does not over-pedal, she does not soft-pedal, she does not play legato when Debussy calls for non-legato, and she does not seek to create tonal haze when the score does not call for such effects. Instead, Vacatello presents these works for what they are­—experiments with a fascinating musical language Debussy had not yet fully figured out.

In the early works, Vacatello is equally compelling. Like her compatriots Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Aldo Ciccolini, and Maurizio Pollini, Vacatello subscribes to the Italian tradition of playing Debussy, which is characterized by rhythmic precision, a stronger emphasis on primary colors, and a certain degree of level-headedness. While it is true that Vacatello’s Debussy does not soar or intoxicate like that of Samson François, I find that it is just as fascinating. I am particularly impressed with L’Isle Joyeuse , in which Vacatello (unlike many pianists who play this piece) refuses the temptation to sectionalize—and, I believe, trivialize—in favor of a cohesive narrative that slowly builds towards apotheosis. The engineering is outstanding. This recording comes with my highest recommendation. Vacatello is definitely a pianist to watch.

FANFARE: Radu A. Lelutiu

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BRI94371

  • UPC: 5028421943718

  • Label: Brilliant Classics

  • Composer: Claude Debussy

  • Performer: Mariangela Vacatello