Ysaye Records In Memoriam IM01, 74:29 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
In a unique historical concept, this CD captures the two books of Debussy’s Images from the musical standpoint of various performers, 1926-1949, in an attempt to trace “a true tradition in the interpretation of Debussy’s works for piano.” We have six performances of Reflets dans l’eau; two of Homage a Rameau; two of Mouvement; two of Cloches a travers le feuilles; four of Poissons d’or. Though the line established in this collection begins with Ricardo Vines (1875-1943), whom Debussy admired greatly for a time, there is no guarantee that any of these performers adheres strictly to the scores he realizes. Vines, in the instance of Poissons d’or (rec. 1930), plays particularly fast, not slowing down for Debussy’s instruction (bar 94) “Commencer au-dessous du movement.” Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958), proffers arpeggios ad libitum in Hommage a Rameau and Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut. She plays with ravishing grace, however, and her Poissons d’or (rec. 1947) enjoys the same clarity as that of Rubinstein. Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) proves a most consistent and diaphanous exponent of Debussy, but will subito forte on a whim, shift his rubato, and ignore the “Lent” indication at the end of Poissons d’or (rec. 1937).
It is remarkable how much tonal distinction and sonic differentiation certain piansts can project in Debussy: there is no mistaking Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) in his 1949 playing of Mouvement and Cloches a travers les feuilles, for the hard, bell-like patina of his playing, the crisp dynamism of his athletic style, which seems heavy and Teutonic after Gieseking and Doyen. The sound of Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo (1920-1995) in Reflets dans l’eau (rec. 1948) resonates with its own sound-space as well, fiery, brilliantly clear, and he respects the ‘Lent’ indication at the end and slows down the tempo. A surprise is the playing of Marius Francois Gaillard (1900-1973), whose 1928 Reflets dans l’eau presents a sober, balanced use of pedal; and in spite of gratuitous accelerations and ritards, he delivers an effective water piece. Ignace Jan Paderewski ((1860-1941) projects a true Romantic’s view–and distortion–of Reflets dans l’eau in 1926, accentuating the right hand and smearing lines and chords as if he were playing Rachmaninov.
Jean Doyen (1907-1982) could be rather academic in his approach, but he is always respectful and plays with devotion. His Reflets dans l’eau from 1943 displays a subtle rubato, and executes the quarter-note triplets at the end, which some other, more “poetic” pianists, do not. The two Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) inscriptions, of Reflets dans l’eau and Poissons d’or–both recorded by RCA on 11 January 1945–affirm his monumental tone, even if it over-indulges itself on arpeggios in the water piece and basks in its own, slow tempo in the goldfish bowl (actually, etched lacquers). Where Debussy marks the latter score “capricious and supple” (bar 30), Rubinstein plays the passage meno mosso, which has less a flighty air than of a stylized, courtly dance.
The guiding spirit behind this assemblage, pianist Betsy Jolas, finds no necessary connection or tradition in these artists, whom she condemns for their being “unwilling to build on the pre-existing model.” Whether this means that Debussy the composer must be approached and solved individually remains the musical question of the day.