Claude Debussy: Arabasques I & II; Images, Books I & II; “La fille aux cheveux de lin”(Préludes I/8); Rêverie; Suite bergamasque. Hsia-Jung Chang, piano (Steinway D). Mandala Studio 06, © 2011, TT. 60:54, $15.00. Available from CDBaby.

This music, along with the composer’s 1903 Estampes, is among my favorite works for piano; I own several recordings of it, including, since its issue, that by Paul Jacobs, recorded in 1978 and released in 1979, first on LP and now on CD, long considered by many to be one of the best interpretations. These works include the composer’s earliest “Impressionist” ones, although he resisted the application of that term to them, following on the heels of Ravel’s slightly earlier such attempts in his “Jeux d’eau” (1902) and Miroirs (1904-’05). Images I dates from 1905, II from 1907; “Clair de lune,” the sole “Impressionist” piece in the Suite bergamasque, whose other movements evoke Baroque forms, also dates, in its final form, from 1905. The two Arabesques date from 1888, “Rêverie,” from 1890 (though perhaps composed earlier), and the other Suite bergamasque movements were begun in 1890; “La fille aux cheveux de lin” was composed in 1910. There are numerous inter-connections and inter-relationships among the works that Chang has selected to weave a coherent, somewhat cyclical program that is more than a simple chronological recording of Debussy’s compositions although she presents them essentially in chronological order (“Rêverie” precedes the Arabesques to open the recital). For example: “Clair de lune” connects with “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (Images II/2), and “Reflets dans l’eau” (Images I/1), with “Poissons d’or” (Images II/3), “Hommage à Rameau” (Images I/2) is a sarabande, a Baroque dance rhythm like the Menuet and Passepied of the Suite bergamasque, and “Rêverie” is not unlike “La fille aux cheveux de lin” that closes the program.

Debussy was seeking to create sounds that had not theretofore been obtained from a piano, essentially a percussive instrument. He avowedly wanted to paint with sound and to make the instrument sound more ethereal, to make the listener forget it had hammers. He did not own a Steinway, however, although he played one on a few occasions: the Welte Mignon piano roll company used a model B for its recordings and Debussy made a few (though not of any of these works) that have been re-issued on a CD that I own; and there were some in Parisian salons of the time, including the 1896 NY one of Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, whose details and current whereabouts are unknown, and the 1906 Hamburg D serial number 124129 of the Princesse Winnaretta (Singer, daughter of Isaac, heiress of the sewing machine fortune) de Polignac, now in a private collection, that he may have played on occasion. At the time that he wrote the earlier of these works, his primary piano was probably a Bechstein upright, although he was familiar with Érards from his years at the Paris Conservatoire (although there is no information indicating that he ever had one in any of his residences…), had played a Pleyel grand when at the Villa Medicis in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome (a piano alleged still to be there, but some dispute this – the firm rehabilitated and modified/updated it later…), and had a Pleyel upright in his home at least by 1902. Bechsteins had a very pronounced, resonant, and prolonged ring, especially in the upper registers, a sound Debussy liked and that Steinways do not generally have.

In 1905, he purchased in Eastbourne, on the English coast, and had shipped to his home in Paris, a small 1904 Blüthner grand, serial number 65614, that was equipped with the company’s patented Aliquot system of additional strings in the upper registers, mounted above those that are struck by the hammers, that sound in sympathy with them, thus deepening yet further the ring. (You won’t believe your ears if you ever hear one.) He had first encountered this make and feature the previous year on a trip to the Isle of Jersey. This piano, apparently the only one he actually bought, still exists in playing condition in the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde. From that time on, therefore, when he was putting the finishing touches on the Suite bergamasque and when he composed the Images and the Préludes, this was the instrument at which he was working and the sound of which he was thinking. It is considerably deeper, richer, and more resonant than that of a Steinway and even than that of a Bechstein. To this day, both of these makes, especially Blüthner, have very distinctive and resonant rings.

Nonetheless, Chang manages to obtain from the Steinway she is playing (but not credited on the sleeve) sounds that simulate them quite well. To determine this, I listened successively (several times in different orders) to her recording of “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” Roy Howat’s (also on a Steinway D), Noël Lee’s (on a Hornung & Möller piano, a Danish make, operating 1827-1972), Jacobs’ (on a Bösendorfer Imperial), and Elaine Greenfield’s, using the 1907 Blüthner in the Frederick Collection that is similar to Debussy’s. [Except for Images II, included to fill out Randall Love’s Le Tombeau de Debussy CD, the other works have not been recorded on this instrument; I do not own Gieseking’s recording of the Préludes, and do not know of any recording(s) on a Bechstein or a modern Blüthner.] The Blüthner has a deeper, more resonant ring, and although Howat, Jacobs, and Lee handle their instruments extremely well to obtain an excellent resonance, for my ears, Chang’s results come closest to the Blüthner’s. Some of this clearly results from her pedaling. Howat manages to obtain an excellent resonance in his recording of the Images I & II as well; his recording of the other works uses a Stuart and Sons piano. Jacobs uses a Baldwin for those.

Chang’s interpretations seem indeed to paint the sound pictures Debussy wanted. Most of her timings for the shorter works are similar to those of the other recordings with which I compared them, but a few, such as “Hommage à Rameau” (Images I/2) and “Poissons d’or” (Images II/3), are as much as a minute or more on either side of those of some of the other pianists (including Cédric Tiberghien’s; Love’s timing of the latter work at 4:19 is 26 seconds longer than Chang’s, which is 11 seconds shorter than Tiberghien’s [unidentified piano], but 20 seconds longer than Jacobs’, a minute longer than Howat’s 3:18, 45 seconds longer than Lee’s 3:32, which is 23 seconds longer than Gieseking’s [unidentified piano], who therefore takes the prize for speed(!), with Chang’s on the slower end of the range), all significant differences for works which are mostly less than five minutes long, with many under three minutes. For “La fille…,” Greenfield’s 2:40 is the longest, followed by Jacobs and Chang 7 and 8 seconds behind, then Howat and Lee, 3 seconds apart, with Lee at exactly 2:00, 32 seconds shorter than Chang. Debussy himself is reported not to have always played the same work at the same tempo, but discrepancies were probably not this wide. He was known for his masterful use of the pedals, often commented upon by the critics and musicians of his time. It is a matter of documented record that Debussy always insisted that his score markings and metronome indications, in works that have them – not all do – ought to be scrupulously observed. (This is something that Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Fauré, & Ravel all constantly harped on, too.) All these things are essential to understanding French keyboard “Impressionism”: when you add tempi, dynamics, and expression to the vastly different sound of the instruments themselves, you often get music that is worlds away from what the composer(s) had in mind – and probably something they would not have liked or approved.

The CD’s heavy-card-stock paper fold-over sleeve has a lovely original Oriental-looking painting by Bai Ma in yellow with touches of green, which stretches across both front and back and even onto the inside faces, that features, on the back, a moon peeking through branches of trees, and, on the front, the upper portion of a woman’s head with hair flying in a breeze, with some fish superimposed, all images inspired by works in the recording, very much in the spirit of Debussy, not at all “Impressionistic.” “Poissons d’or” was inspired by a Chinese lacquer painting that he owned and reportedly had hanging on the wall next to his piano, work of art reproduced on the LP album sleeve and now on the cover of the folded paper liner notes of the CD of the aforementioned Jacobs recording. The notes are a brief essay by Chang that includes her descriptions of and reflections on the music and what Debussy was aiming for, with some specifics for each piece.

Chang is a self-described “Chopin addict”; she recorded the complete Préludes on a restored 1907 Pleyel in 2004, which I reviewed in these pages, and followed that with the complete Études (except the three Nouvelles Études of 1839) on a Steinway D in 2008. She performed them and gave a master class at Duke in February 2007. I can suggest that she can rightfully add to that moniker the one of “Debussy channeler.” For me, this recording easily places itself among the best interpretations, those that serve as benchmarks for Debussy’s sound world, including Lee’s,* Jacobs’, Howat’s, and Walter Gieseking’s (from an earlier generation, mostly in the 1950s, which I find the least satisfying of the lot, but recording technology has improved enormously since then, as has the understanding of Debussy’s scores and his goals…), but with the reservation that Chang’s playing times for a few pieces may not be exactly what Debussy specified, even though none of them seem patently wrong; Howat’s and Lee’s are likely to be closer.  Timing is good for the recording’s release: this year is the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, on August 22, 1862.

*For the record, Lee recorded them three times: in the late 1950s or early 1960s, 1971 (re-mastered and re-issued in 2002), considered by many French critics at the time to be the best interpretation, and 1993-’94.


We are pleased to share part of a note from the performer of this CD:
I received word … about the Debussy review you wrote. Thank you very much for the kind words, and for the wealth of information concerning pianos and other recordings. There were many details that I put into the making of the disc, thinking they were for my own sense of completeness, but somehow you have managed to pick them out one by one. Thanks again for the encouragement! Hsia-Jung Chang, 2/14/12″