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Debussy: Suite Bergamasque (Cho Seong-Jin, Bavouzet)

The Suite Bergamasque was published in 1905, but completed in 1890. It hence represents something of a callback to Debussy’s early style: it’s not as intensely evocative as Estampes or Images (the latter of which came out in 1905, too), as abstractly imagistic as the Preludes, or as pungent as the late Etudes. Nonetheless, this suite is a really beautiful bit of work: Debussy revised it before publication (though we don’t actually know what he changed), and there are lots of his trademarks in evidence here: modal playfulness (especially in the Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Dorian), unprepared coloristic modulation, and the use of extended chords (the suite opens with an F 13th) – all paired with early Debussy’s Chopin-like gift for melody and attractive figuration. There are also rather Romantic flashes of open emotion at points (such as the 30 seconds or so after 7:55), which are practically nonexistent in Debussy’s later piano works.

It would be a little silly to spend too much time discussing the structure of this suite, but there’s a little motif that recurs in the first three pieces, which consists of a kind of interrupted descent (often in thirds) from F to D (or Db). You hear it at 0:30, 4:40, the opening of Clair de Lune, and 9:54. Otherwise, the suite actually follows the Baroque model quite closely: a discursive prelude, a Menuet (which here is more playful than its Baroque counterpart), a lyrical meditation, and then a lively closing dance (a faster-than-usual Passepied).

Two magical recordings. Cho Seong-Jin and Bavouzet are two of the finest Debussy interpreters living: they’re some of the few pianists who can (or who bother to) differentiate between piano, pianissimo, and piano-pianissimo. Cho is supple, hyper-fine, translucent. As his recording of the Chopin Ballades shows, he is one of those extremely rare pianists who excels in playing quietly, and all his strengths are on full display here: lots of well-judged rubato, lovely variation in chord voicing, melting legatos – this is Debussy playing at its most sensuous and haunting. Bavouzet’s approach is quite different: it is more big-hearted and less reticent, less sunset and more afternoon sun, playful, elusive, even humorous at points. An especially attractive feature of Bavouzet’s playing is his extremely fine use of the pedal – he manages to sustain low notes over passages that have no pedal indicated, while retaining the brightness and clarity of the upper voices.

Cho Seong-Jin:
00:00 – Prélude: Moderato (tempo rubato)
04:31 – Menuet: Andantino
08:44 – Clair de Lune: Andante très expressif
14:15 – Passepied: Allegretto ma non troppo

Bavouzet:
18:07 – Prélude: Moderato (tempo rubato)
21:48 – Menuet: Andantino
25:49 – Clair de Lune: Andante très expressif
30:35 – Passepied: Allegretto ma non troppo

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