Debussy’s Images – Impressionism For Your Ears

20th century music

Let me first of all do a quick detour here: You won’t find a lot of 20th century classical music on my blog. It is very simple, the further we go away from tonality, the less I like it.

So the territory of the impressionism of a Ravel or Debussy are still borderline, some Prokofiev is as well, but I rarely really enjoy Shostakovich, and don’t even get me started on true twelve-tone and other stuff. I just don’t get it.

As I know some smart people who really adore Schönberg, Webern, Boulez et al. I’ve often wondered why I have this barrier. You see, the visual arts took a similar turn from concrete motives to abstract concepts, and I actually like a 1950 Picasso usually significantly more to a Turner, or any 18th century art. I really appreciate Jason Pollock and Sam Francis (especially the latter). So here I am much more open-minded (OK, when it gets to Duchamp’s Fountain or most of Joseph Boys, I’m out, but at least I get (or believe so) intellectually what they are trying to get at).

But atonal music (and sorry, while some will say there is no atonal music, I think most readers here will get the concept). is something I just don’t get. Probably my brain is to small or too hard-wired in the well-tempered scale to go there.

Claude Debussy’s Images

Back to the early 20th century, and more specifically Debussy. Why write about this right now? Well, I think I’ve mentioned before the excellent Swiss radio show “Diskothek Im 2“, that gets two experts in the studio and compares 5 different version of a given classical work, and this fully blindly.

A very interesting exercise which I should do even more often at home (you’ll be surprised how much your most beloved conducted can disappoint when you don’t know it’s him, or vice versa).

So, a recent show compared 5 recordings of Debussy’s Image. These 6 little poems, with beautiful names like Reflets dans l’eau (reflections on the water), or Poissons d’or (goldfish) are probably among the best known examples of what we call today impressionism, similar to the earlier period in the visual arts (Debussy apparently didn’t like the term by the way).

The editor chose 5 contemporary recordings, and so the classical reference version of these, by the amazing Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli on DG in 1971 was out. By the way, I’m just re-listening to this version right now and it is outstanding, so don’t hesitate to get it in spite of its age.

The versions reviewed included Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alain Planès on a 1902 Blüthner piano (very interesting to discover by the way), Marc-André Hamelin, and the “winner” of this little contest, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Complete Debussy vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet Debussy vol. 4 Images Chandos

And here I must admit, while I had heard his name before, I didn’t have a single Bavouzet recording in my collection. Something to be corrected ASAP, as while I don’t always agree with the invited experts, in this case, recording number 4 clearly stood out (in spite of no recording of the 5 being a negative outlier, all had their qualities). I suppose it’s the mixture between extreme precision and the ability to just get sucked into the music.

Have you ever sat in the small west-end Musée Marmottan in Paris? It doesn’t draw the gazillions of visitors that the Musée d’Orsay gets, but it actually has an exceptional Monet collection. There are two main reasons to got there. A, there is an entire corner where you sit surrounded by Monet’s water lilies. Believe me, they are better than the original in Giverny. And there is one, rather little painting, depicting a rising sun over foggy harbor waters, with some small boats passing by, called Impression, Soleil Levant. And yes, this is what gave Impressionism its name.

Sorry for the detour, but watching this particular painting, and listening to Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut played by Bavouzet gives about the same feeling, that is somewhere out of this world.

This is actually album number 4 of Bavouzet recording Debussy’s complete works, I assume all other volumes are equally worth having, but I didn’t yet have time to check them out.

My rating: 5 stars

You can get it here directly from the label.