Debussy: Piano Works (CD review)

Ronan O'Hora, piano. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks Audiophile Collection RPM 29040.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French impressionist composer, whether he liked the term "impressionist" or not. The impressionists sought to create moods, feelings, perceptions, and sensations: the painters using bright, juxtaposed colors representing the effect of light on objects; the sculptors creating surfaces unevenly textured to reflect light inconsistently; the writers emphasizing the outward characteristics of actions without much attention to detail; and the music composers like Debussy, Albeniz, Delius, Satie, Granados, Roussel, Scriabin, and Ravel producing luxuriant harmonies, delicate rhythms, and novel tonal colors.

Debussy famously denounced critics as "imbeciles" who called him an "impressionist" composer, preferring people to consider him a symbolist, a composer trying "to do something different," as he put it. But if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and talks like a duck.... Debussy's music is probably the best argument for his impressionistic tendencies. He writes in flowing harmonies that evoke mental images without quite pinning them down with the specificity of the tone painters.

On the present disc, British pianist Ronan O'Hora performs fourteen pieces Debussy wrote for piano, at least half of which I'd guess that anyone, classical enthusiast or not, would recognize. The tracks include the Arabesques Nos. 1 and 2, Clair de Lune, Passepied, Reverie, Hommage a Rameau, Voiles, Les sons et les parfums tourent dans l'air du soir, Le fille aux cheveux de lin, La cathedrale engloutie, Minstrels, The Little Shepard, Golliwogg's Cakewalk, and L'Isle joyeuse.

Now, here's the thing about Debussy performances: Because the music can often be so nebulous in so many ways, it opens it up to numerous variations of interpretation. O'Hora appears to prefer a highly emotional, sometimes sentimental, romanticized approach to many of the pieces, highlighting the lighter, airier qualities of the music over anything more distinct. This is not a criticism on my part, you understand, just an observation. O'Hora is without question a skilled pianist of charm and distinction, and if you lean toward his particular style with Debussy, you'll no doubt cherish the album. I found some it a little too dewy-eyed for my taste, but that's just me.

O'Hora is best in things like the opening Arabesque No. 1, where he captures all the exotic color of the piece, or Golliwogg's Cakewalk, where his obvious delight in the music is infectious. He's at his most easygoing in Clair de Lune, where his pacing and phrasing seem so laid back I wondered if he wasn't about to nod off at the piano. For comparison purposes, I looked at O'Hora's timings for each track on the disc and found them in every case slower than those on several rival recordings I had in my collection.

Still, when O'Hora is on target, which is, to be fair, most of the time, as with the aforementioned Arabesque or La fille aux cheveux de lin, his music making can be quite fetching. Indeed, all of his performances, even the ones I found a bit indulgent, are moving in their own way. Let's say they're different and they're characterful, just as I'd imagine Debussy intended. So you'll get no serious complaints from me.

The folks at Royal Philharmonic Masterworks do not indicate when or where they or someone else recorded these performances, but they do say that Sheridan Square Entertainment first produced them in 2007, and that the recording is in 20 bit, mastered via 32 bit, and presented in high definition. Well, that may be; however, I wouldn't exactly call the sound of audiophile quality unless you enjoy a good deal of resonance in your acoustic. Certainly, the degree of room reflection present in the sonics adds to the dreamy quality of Debussy's music and of O'Hora's playing; still, when comparing the recording to either of several other Debussy piano discs I had on hand--from Aldo Ciccolini (EMI) and Pascal Roge (Decca)--it seemed as though O'Hora's engineers had recorded it too reverberantly. Both the EMI and Decca recordings are firmer, clearer, and better defined while also providing a natural, realistic ambience to the sound. Nevertheless, if you take to O'Hara's highly nuanced readings of these Debussy works, you're likely also to appreciate the airy aural setting the recording affords him.


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