Debussy’s 12 Études, composed in 1915, are dedicated to Chopin and were prompted by the composer’s work on his Chopin Edition. Following Chopin, Debussy turned pragmatism (thirds, sixths, octaves, etc) into a transcending poetry to create his greatest keyboard masterpiece. Steven Osborne’s recording brings to an end his Debussy cycle for Hyperion, and rarely have mastery and sensitivity been so meticulously and awe-inspiringly combined. If trenchancy and finesse are at the far-from-still centre of the Études, then Osborne’s realisation of contradictory elements, of pragmatism and poetry, of profound mystery and ambiguity, is unsurpassed.
Always you are made aware of what Michael Tippett once called ‘the great effort of interpretation’, the intensive preparation to arrive at such an exalted level of achievement. For here is a pianist who shines a searchlight on Debussy’s inner secrets, yet is no less adept at retreating into a hazy and distant sense of vision, his essentially modern view of Debussy remote from Gieseking’s legendary and opalescent if far less precise recording.
Osborne is more ferocious than playful in ‘Pour les cinq doigts’, his sonority weighty and with a brilliant edge finely calculated. The chiaroscuro, the play of light and shade central to Debussy’s art, is always present but it is played down in favour of more powerful virtues. Poise and ferocity combine to a stunning degree in ‘Pour les octaves’ (Debussy’s Mephisto Waltz, perhaps) and if Osborne shows his ultra-precision in ‘Pour les notes répétées’, he is no less responsive to ‘Pour les agréments’, music Debussy described as ‘a Barcarolle on a somewhat Italian sea’. Then there is ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’, the nodal and expressive centre of the Études, with its desolating evocation of the aftermath of war. The final Étude, ‘Pour les accords’, like a march in jackboots, tells of the unhappy circumstances of its composition—Debussy in the coastal town of Pourville, already ill with the cancer that would eventually kill him, France defending itself against the German army. Osborne’s entirely personal and committed way with the Études is underlined by a sense of overwhelming bleakness that makes even outstanding alternative recordings by Pollini, Uchida and Aimard have less impact.
For encores there are Pour le piano, La plus que lente (an audacious inclusion of a salon work from earlier and happier times) and Berceuse héroïque, a return to a grim evocation, its phantom buglecalls a confirmation of desolation, with La Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem, at its heart; finally, we have Roy Howat’s realisation of the 11th Étude, ‘Pour les arpèges composés’, in an earlier version later published as Étude retrouvée.
Debussy’s Études represent the triumph of an agnostic creative spirit over death, a triumph that could hardly be more formidably caught than by Steven Osborne.