At the end of last month, Chandos released a five-CD “collectors edition” of the complete piano music of Claude Debussy performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. What may justify that “collectors edition” epithet is that the contents of the set goes beyond the complete list of solo compositions for piano that one may find in the Grove Music Online entry for Debussy. Indeed, that list may be covered in its entirety by the first four CDs in the collection. However, the remaining CD covers the piano versions that Debussy provided for his three completed ballets, “Khamma,” “Jeux” (games), and “La boîte à joujoux” (the toy box).
While these three pieces seldom show up in solo piano recitals, each has an interesting history. Of the three only “Jeux” is entirely Debussy’s own work. Composed for a ballet created by Vaslav Nijinsky for performance by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Debussy completed the piano version in 1912 (presumably in time for use in rehearsals); and had the orchestral version ready for the premiere on May 15, 1913 (for which the conductor was Pierre Monteux). “Khamma,” on the other hand, was described as a “legend dansée” (danced legend), presumably on an Asian theme; but little is known except that it was commissioned by Maud Allen. Debussy composed a short score between 1911 and 1913, which was then completed by Charles Koechlin; and Debussy then composed the piano score in 1916. Finally, “La boîte à joujoux,” which was intended as a ballet for children, was composed for piano in 1913. However, it was not performed until December of 1919, over a year after Debussy’s death, and the orchestral version was completed by André Caplet. (All three of these compositions are available in their orchestral versions in the impressively comprehensive Naxos collection of the complete orchestral works of Debussy.)
However, if the last CD of the Chandos collection is one of intriguing curiosities, the real substance is to be found in the first four CDs in the set. In this case almost all of the selections are now firmly established in recital repertoire. The most notable exception might be Debussy’s final solo piano composition, “Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon” (the evenings illuminated by burning coal), which, like the “extra” “Étude retrouvée” (recovered etude), never made it to the Grove list of piano compositions. It is thus impressive how much diversity extends over the full catalog of these works, not only through Debussy’s striking ability to elicit visual images through his musical passages, but also through the different moods he can evoke, from the raucously comic (as in the prelude dedicated to Charles Dickens’ Pickwick) to the quietly introspective (as in the often-performed “Rêverie”).
Thus, what is most important about Bavouzet’s performances is how thoroughly comfortable he is with this full gamut of expressive moods. Through just the right combination of phrasing, touch, and a keen sense of dynamic level, he unfolds all of that diversity as if he is leading the listener on a journey through Debussy’s accomplishments. This is thus a collection that is as capable of supporting a disc-by-disc traversal of the entire corpus as it is of allowing the listener to sample individual compositions at his/her pleasure and discretion. Regular readers know that Debussy’s piano music has become very popular recently, both in recital and on recordings; but Chandos has now provided a particularly effective medium through which one can readily appreciate the full scope of Debussy’s efforts.