DEBUSSY: Masques; … D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle joyeuse; Images ; Estampes; Children’s Corner – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion

DEBUSSY: Masques; … D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle joyeuse; Images I; Images II; Estampes; Children’s Corner – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion CDA68161, 73:21 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

A long time coming, but well worth the wait.

It’s been since 2006 that Steven Osborne released his Debussy Preludes, one of the better sets to come out in the last twenty years, so it’s nice that he has turned his sights on the Frenchman again. This time the album is of a very popular nature, since at least five of the works are among the most played. Masques is from 1904, a much more evasive and subtle work than its companion from the same time, L’isle joyeuse, supposedly a “happy” time indeed as the composer had shipped his wife off to Normandy—and she attempted suicide for the first time that year—while eloping with Emma Bardac. Perhaps this dual pairing is reflected in new-found love in L’isle joyeuse while expressed in Masques, according to his widow, the “tragic expression of existence”—who can say? Either way, Steven Osborne turns in appropriately suitable readings of great expressivity.

The 1903 Estampes (the French name for Japanese prints), is thought to be the result of his encounter with the gamelan at the 1889 or 1900 Parish exhibitions. The three-movement work would become one of his most played pieces. The six works of the two books of Images are derived, as the title suggests, from visual phenomena, whether of painting, prints, or the simple imagination. Debussy was very fond and familiar—and influenced—by the work of the poet Baudelaire, who said “the whole visible universe is nothing but a storehouse of images…”, and this philosophical construct certainly gripped the composer. The two books are only two years apart in publishing, even though Book II is quite a departure in its use of quiet dynamics throughout.

Children’s Corner, conceived in 1906 and completed in 1908, is now a famously played set of six pieces dedicated to the birth of his daughter Chouchou. Delightful, humorous, and melodic, it is not only for children, especially when played with such panache as Osborne exhibits here. Finally, the esoteric D’un cahier d’esquisses, ignored by so many pianists today (it means from a sketchbook) is rightfully included here as the second piece on the disc, following Masques and before L’isle joyeuse in what some consider, as Debussy hinted, was a second Suite Bergamasque, disjointed later only due to publishing squabbles. Many consider playing them all together in sequence as a restoration of a triptych, though Osborne, even playing them in sequence, refuses to go so far. At any rate, a nice touch, and one that makes this superior album even more worth acquiring, especially with such deft playing and natural acoustics.

—Steven Ritter

 

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