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Jean-Efflam Bavouzet reaches the climax of his multi award-winning complete works for piano, with an album of solo piano transcriptions of three ballets from the same period.
Sir Charles Stanford subjected all music to what he called a ‘piano test’: if it didn’t stand up to being played on the piano, then it wasn’t to be taken seriously. In the case of Debussy, all the French composer’s scores went through a notational stage which, if not specifically designed for piano, could be given a reasonably accurate performance on that instrument. Where ballets were concerned, obviously the choreographer had to rehearse the dancers to the accompaniment of a piano score that conformed to the rhythms and structure of the final orchestral product. The three piano versions recorded here were therefore intimately related to both the compositional and production processes.
Khamma stems from a commission in 1910 for an Egyptian ballet, originally entitled Isis. The project was troubled from the start when Debussy refused to reduce the orchestra from 90 to 40 players. He never heard the work, which was first given its concert performance in 1924. Bavouzet writes, ‘I discovered almost by chance in a Parisian music store, a version for piano of Khamma. This had previously escaped me so what was my surprise when I saw the richness and originality! The virtuosity required is much more subtle than the more obvious. It must give the illusion of more perfect sound levels corresponding to each specific instruments group.’ In the midst of the negotiations over Khamma, Debussy wrote his second ballet, Jeux. Jeux is a highly complex and incomprehensible piece for two hands. Bavouzet notes, ‘In several places what Debussy wrote in the reduction for solo piano is really unplayable. The text is so thin and poor that a small part of the richness of the orchestral version is realised. It was indeed this frustration that prompted me to write some years ago, a version for two pianos today published by Durand. But for this disc I had to make a version for two hands to do justice to the score. I can say that this is probably one of the most difficult works that I have played.’ Two months after the Jeux premiere, Debussy began work on his last ballet, La boîte à joujoux, based on an illustrated children’s story. Debussy embraced the plot, busy ‘extracting secrets from [his daughter] Chouchou’s old dolls and learning to play the side drum’. Within a month the first tableau was done, and he claimed he had ‘tried to be straightforward and even “amusing”, without pretentiousness or pointless acrobatics.’ The following month the piano score was complete.
Jean-Efflam concludes, ‘In my opinion the transcriptions can offer greater clarity and organisation of musical discourse. Young conductors have told me that they understood the score of Jeux better after hearing the version for two pianos… for those who do not know these three ballets in their orchestral version, this disc may give them the curiosity to explore the works further.’
Claude Debussy: Khamma (version for piano)
Scene 1: Le Temple interieur du Grand-Dieu Amun-Ra
Scene 2: La grande porte s'ouvre et une legere forme voilee est
Au Movement - Soudain
Scene 3: C'est l'aube froide et grise du matin qui lentement devient rose
Claude Debussy: Jeux (version for piano)
Du fond, a gauche, apparaissent deux jeunes filles craintives et curieuses
Une des deux jeunes filles danse seule
On apercoit le jeune homme au fond, a gauche, qui semble se cacher
Ils dansent ensemble
Le jeune homme a suivi cette derniere danse par curiosite d'abord
Dans l'emportement de leur danse, ils n'ont pas remarque l'attitude d'abord inquiete
Pourtant, le jeune homme intervient en ecartant leurs tetes doucement
Ils dansent desormais tous les trois
Une balle de tennis tombe a leurs pieds
Claude Debussy: La boite a joujoux
Prelude: Le sommeil de la boite (The Toy-box Asleep) - Tableau 1: Le magasin de jouets (The Toy Shop)
Tableau 2: Le champ de bataille (The Field of Battle)
Tableau 3: La bergerie a vendre (The Sheepfold for Sale)
Tableau 4: Apres fortune faite - Epilogue
“This series has been as much an exploration of the mind of Debussy as a traversal of the works themselves. Bavouzet combines a probing intellect with a sensuality of touch that is enthralling. …a remarkable achievement…”
22nd November 2009
“The work’s prismatic inventiveness and its way of seeming at once discontinuous and a breathless sweep do not need instrumental colour to be forcefully registered, as Bavouzet demonstrates. His accounts of all three pieces are graphic and meticulous.”
19th November 2009
“In all three works, Bavouzet's exceptional control, variation of touch and keyboard colour regularly provide new insights, so that he conjures up the evasive, mutable world of Jeux in a way that seems almost as convincing as the composer's own exquisitely dappled scoring.”
17th November 2009
“it’s a musical adventure for everyone, and Bavouzet has more than achieved what he set out to do. Anyone familiar with Debussy’s shimmering orchestral colouration will recognise it translated into piano form, and anyone who isn’t will find their imaginations filling in the blanks.”
“Such vivid colours, such superbly voiced textures and such flair, nuance and richness of atmosphere, who needs orchestras?”
“Debussy playing does not come any better than this”
Click on any of the works listed above for alternative recordings.