DEBUSSY Études, Books 1 & 2
Among the many composers who have cultivated the piano étude, ranging from Steibelt, Clementi, Hummel, Cramer and Czerny to Ligeti, Glass and Bolcom, few would argue that the summit of the genre belongs to three triumvirs, Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. The fact that, even today, performances and recordings of Debussy’s 12 Études from 1915 are relatively scarce makes the appearance of any complete recording a cause for curiosity.
The latest is by the Chilean-American pianist Paulina Zamora, who now teaches at the University of Chile in Santiago. A sincere and persuasive musician, Zamora’s playing reveals a long and fond relationship with the Études. Pieces such as ‘Pour les quartes’, ‘Pour les huit doigts’ and Pour les degrés chromatiques’ are suffused with distinctive atmosphere. On the other hand, some lighter-hearted pieces, such as ‘Pour les cinq doigts’ and ‘Pour les notes répétées’, seem overly earnest.
At the soft end of the spectrum, Zamora’s dynamic palette could be more differentiated and, perhaps, add another degree of quiet to convey Debussy’s occasional ppp. As it is, in sudden changes between very loud and very soft, as in ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’, contrast seems insufficient. Though details of the specific circumstances of the recording were not available to me, it seems plausible that distant microphone placement may have played a role in obscuring details.
Unfortunately, sound reproduction makes this disc less than competitive with those of Mitsuko Uchida (Philips, 7/90), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Chandos, 12/08), Mariangela Vacatello (Brilliant Classics, 2012) and Garrick Ohlsson (Hyperion, 8/15), all of which, in their very different ways, provide compelling realisations of this intriguing music, Debussy’s valediction to the piano.