Debussy: Complete Works for Piano / Bavouzet

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DEBUSSY Complete Solo Piano Music • Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (pn) • CHANDOS 10743 (5 CDs: 358:44) It was exactly one year ago, in issue 35:4, that...

DEBUSSY Complete Solo Piano Music Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (pn) CHANDOS 10743 (5 CDs: 358:44)

It was exactly one year ago, in issue 35:4, that I reviewed an integral set of Debussy’s works for solo piano on Centaur performed by Larissa Dedova, noting the absence of a couple of unpublished pieces which, technically speaking, made her “complete” survey not as complete as Roy Howat’s highly regarded set on Tall Poppies. The two items missing from Dedova’s survey that were included in Howat’s were the Étude retrouvée , an earlier version of the 11th etude from Book II of the Etudes, discovered in manuscript in 1977; and Intermède , the composer’s 1882 piano arrangement of the second movement from his 1880 Piano Trio No. 1.

Something that struck me immediately about this Debussy set by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was that not only is it spread over five discs, compared to Howat’s and Dedova’s four each, but that there appears to be nearly 50 minutes more music on Bavouzet’s set. Howat takes a total of 298:26; Dedova, 309:54. Even accounting for the two short pieces Howat includes that Dedova doesn’t, the 11-minute-plus difference over a span of five hours is easily explained by tempo differences. But Bavouzet’s 358:54—essentially an entire extra disc’s timing—has to have some other explanation.

The answer will be found on disc 5, on which Bavouzet performs piano transcriptions of three of Debussy’s orchestral works, Khamma, Jeux , and La Boîte à joujoux . Ironically, this makes Bavouzet’s survey both more complete and less complete than Howat’s, for while Howat doesn’t include these questionable transcriptions of orchestral scores, Bavouzet doesn’t include the Intermède . He does, however, include the Étude retrouvée . Of the three piano reductions, Khamma is the most problematic. For a fuller discussion of this Légende dansée , see the review of Jun Märkl’s Naxos recording in 34:4. In a nutshell, Debussy had a falling out early on with Maud Allan, the dancer/actress/choreographer for whom he was composing Khamma . The result was that he walked off the job midway through the project, leaving it in the hands of Charles Koechlin to complete the unfinished score and to orchestrate it. Debussy’s piano reduction was intended for rehearsal purposes only, never for actual performance. That applies equally to Jeux . It, too, was conceived as an orchestral work, its piano reduction being prepared for the dancers to rehearse to, much as opera singers rehearse their parts with a répétiteur at the piano. As Bavouzet explains in his album note, Debussy’s piano reduction of Jeux is incomprehensible and essentially unplayable as a piece for two hands. A version for two pianos was published a number of years ago, but for this recording, Bavouzet has made his own two-hand arrangement.

With regard to the three ballets, danced poems, pantomimes, or whatever one wishes to call them, La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box) is the only one that enjoys real legitimacy as an actual work for piano, since Debussy originally wrote it for piano in 1913 for his daughter Emma, partially orchestrating it himself later. However, even in the case of the piano score, sources differ on its original form. According to Roger Nichols, the album’s alternate note author, Debussy finished the piano score in October 1913—piano, singular. But All Music Guide states that the work was completed in two-piano score—pianos, plural. We’re dealing here with a well-known work by a famous composer dating from the 20th century, not some faded, barely legible, 17th-century manuscript discovered in the wine cellar of some Benedictine monastery. You’d think the matter of provenance in the case of Debussy’s score would be common knowledge. So, who’s right, Nichols or All Music Guide ? To settle the matter I turned to the IMSLP/Petrucci Music library, which publishes scores online, and according to its website,, the first edition was published in 1913 by A. Durand et Cie for solo piano. So Nichols is right on that count.

A year later a suite was made of the work by Léon Roques and also published by Durand, but for piano four hands, not for two pianos, as claimed by All Music Guide . At about the same time, Debussy began orchestrating La Boîte à joujoux , but completed only 93 measures of it, leaving the orchestral scoring to be completed by André Caplet in 1919, a year after Debussy’s death. Thus, Debussy never heard the orchestral version. If you thought the matter was decided—the piece exists for solo piano, for piano four hands, and for orchestra—you will search in vain for it at ArkivMusic under any of the following categories: “Solo Piano,” “2 Pianos/4 Hands,” “Orchestral or Piano.” No indeed; you’ll find it hiding, along with Le martyre de St Sébastien , under one of only two listed “Stage Works,” even though once you drill down into the recordings, you’ll find an equal number for piano and for orchestra. This also begs the question as to why Khamma , a stage work, is listed under “Orchestral or Piano,” and Jeux , another stage work, is listed under “Orchestral.” Maybe it’s time we give serious consideration to the once suggested idea of filing musical works by key and have done with it. The point of this digression is that, with the exception of La Boîte à joujoux , which is played by lots of pianists, but not usually as part of a survey of Debussy’s complete piano music, Bavouzet has added an extra disc to his collection containing two works, Khamma and Jeux, that are infrequently or rarely heard on piano. In the case of Jeux , you could say never, since the arrangement heard here is Bavouzet’s own.

I asked to review this set because I was very favorably impressed by Bavouzet’s first volume in a projected Beethoven cycle, and I can’t say I was disappointed. Perhaps I should have mentioned at the outset, however, that strictly speaking this set is not new. The recordings date from between 2006 and 2009, and were released as individual discs, four of which—Volumes 1, 2, 4, and 5—were reviewed by Alan Swanson and Colin Clarke in 31:2, 31:5, 32:5, and 33:6, respectively. It doesn’t appear that Volume 3, containing the Suite bergamasque and other stand-alone pieces, was ever reviewed. The set has now been gathered together in a very handsome box with each disc in its own heavy cardboard envelope and its own booklet containing notes for just those works on the enclosed CD. The entire set is available from Amazon for $59.99, which works out to $11.99 per disc, good value for the money.

Bavouzet’s playing, as expected, is fluid and atmospheric, his touch innately responsive to Debussy’s gradations of tone and keyboard colorations. Bavouzet has been living with Debussy for a long time. An earlier (1998) Canyon CD of the Etudes was reviewed by Charles Timbrell in 21:4. While I find Bavouzet’s approach well enough suited to the music and his readings expressively shaped and shaded, if I had to make a hard choice, I think I would still lean marginally towards Roy Howat. The Scottish pianist has come to be regarded as a world renowned Debussy scholar, having written extensively on the composer and edited the complete piano music for Durand’s Œuvres Complètes de Claude Debussy . Howat’s research has led him to view with some skepticism the typecasting of Debussy’s music as overly Impressionistic, noting in particular the composer’s strong rhythmic clarity. Howat’s interpretive approach is thus one that lends the music sharper lines and less vague harmonic textures than we often hear from other pianists, Bavouzet included. Still, given the enormous range and quality of Debussy’s works for piano, there’s room on the shelf for more than one complete set, and after turning to Howat, Bavouzet would be my very next choice. So, obviously recommended, assuming that you haven’t already acquired one or more of the discs individually. Isn’t it always maddening when record companies do that?

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 30, 2012

  • UPC: 095115174326

  • Catalog Number: CHAN 10743(5)

  • Label: Chandos

  • Number of Discs: 5

  • Composer: Claude Debussy

  • Performer: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet