Previously reviewed and admired in its download form by Dan Morgan, this Études-only release is indeed something you might not expect you will enjoy, but is more than likely to become one of your piano discs of the year.
The words ‘piano’ and ‘études’ or ‘studies’ are all too often connected with less interesting music designed to lay the foundations for pianistic technique, and indeed this is from where Debussy launches his 1915 collection, opening with Carl Czerny’s basic ‘five-finger exercise’ as a clear signal—here is where we come from, now let me show you where I think we should be going.
Following the score while listening to Garrick Ohlsson’s performances of these often fiendishly difficult pieces enhances the delight we can take in his observation and interpretation of Debussy’s detailed markings. The picking out of melodies in complex textures, dynamic relationships, articulation, rubati and everything else—Ohlsson has absorbed it all and integrated each layer of musical instruction into narratives that flow with sensational colours and a superlative sense of natural development. We’re as absorbed as listeners as the musician must be in traversing each technical minefield, in awe of this aspect of the performer’s achievement, but equally in awe of Debussy’s uncompromising brilliance as a composer for his instrument.
Ever-changing atmosphere is delivered with impeccable touch, each note and chord weighted perfectly. Ohlsson’s sense of proportion within each piece and every bar of each piece is the thing that constantly draws you in—more often unconsciously as not. Put simply, there are no distractions. We can marvel at Debussy, encountering and processing the kind of avant-garde artistry which had its effect on later generations such as Messiaen and Dutilleux.
From a composer towards the end of his life and artistic career we encounter one still filled with youthful optimism in Prokofiev’s Études Op 2. As a reaction against the conservatism of his St Petersburg Conservatory teachers these pieces defy convention but are by no means difficult to listen to, the composer’s facility at the keyboard clearly demonstrated as much as his prodigious flow of musical inventiveness. Putting the Russian character of these studies against Debussy’s essence of French-ness is another fascinating contrast in terms of kinds of darkness, attitude to the percussive nature of the instrument and the sheer nature of performing as a public act: Prokofiev and Debussy being spectacular in entirely different ways.
Least well known of these collections, Bartók’s Études Op 18 take us somewhere entirely different again, a response against the influence of Debussy as Prokofiev’s was against his conservatory teachers. Exploration of rhythm and tonal/atonal nuance within pianistic techniques not unfamiliar to fans of Liszt make these pieces a confluence of terrains both enigmatic and Romantic with a big ‘R’. Roger Nichols in his booklet notes sums up the third étude as something that 'proves that atonal music can be fun', but in fact I don’t really hear any of these pieces as truly atonal. If you think of the rich tonality-blurring chromaticisms of Scriabin and Szymanowski and throw them into Bartók’s mix of percussiveness and folk-rhythmic drive then this might give some idea of what I mean. In any case, this isn’t serialist atonality.
I love Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of the Debussy Études which can still be found via a Decca Originals re-release. This dynamic and richly recorded stand-alone example has something of a CD-single feel to it these days but is still worth every penny. Uchida’s dynamic extremes and staggering virtuosity are remarkable, but I think Ohlsson wins in terms of clarity, atmosphere and narrative cohesion. Roger Woodward’s Prokofiev set on Celestial Harmonies including the 1909 Études is a valuable item indeed, his playing in these pieces creating a grander but less transparent landscape. The Bartók Études are less familiar but I’m happy to take Garrick Ohlsson as my reference in this case. Whatever the alternatives, this Hyperion release is a very happy gathering together of some truly remarkable music and musicianship and tramples much of the competition .