This is one of those CDs that I have played repeatedly since it first arrived—after the tenth or so listen it dawned on me that it is really rather special. It is pleasing to see husband and wife team Pascal and Ami Rogé joinging forces to provide this duo appendix to the cycle of solo piano works by Debussy that Mr Rogé has been engaged in for some years for the Onyx label. In fact, his affiliation with the music of Debussy goes back at least thirty years; his previous set of recordings is still available as a double-Decca. If anyone were going to provide a truly idiomatic reading of these pieces for four hands at one or two pianos it would be the Rogé partnership.
The CD begins, however, with three solo piano works that were never gathered into one of Debussy’s collections. The opening piece, Masques, is replete with the kinds of innovative technical difficulty that Debussy’s piano works offer: awkward and exposedIslameyesque repeated-note figurations that are themselves reused over and over again, martellato chordal textures that have to be exactly even in tone, all with minimal pedal. For despite his reputation, Debussy’s textures rarely hide behind pedal haze—only when appropriate, as in the piano Prélude, Brouillards, for instance. Even Rogé, the supreme technician, is only just fluent in these radical new pianistic imaginings. Tricky or not, he succeeds marvellously in providing this characteristically mercurial work with psychological continuity. He continues his program with an early Nocturne, exquisitely melodic and shadowy, with faint redolences of Rimsky, and then Debussy’s final piano work, the sombre Elegie.
It is quite extraordinary to think that Debussy’s most well-known piano duet, the Petite Suite, was written in 1886-89, when he was in his mid-twenties. It has quite a lot in common with his slightly later solo piano Suite Bergamasque but the two-player work is subtler and more knowing, not just in its sly recollections of Massenet and Wagner—digs we hardly notice today—but in its remarkably forward-looking harmonies and textures, and its almost facile brightness, which borders on the swaggering: I find it hard not to think of les Six, nearly fifty years later. Certainly it displays a surefootedness and confidence rare for a composer of that age. Astonishing also is the Marche Ecossaise, written at the behest of a Scottish general. Ludicrous though the commission sounds, Debussy managed to produce a work both idiosyncratically his own and distinctly tartan. The Scottish flavour must have appealed to him, as he returned to the theme by using the folksong ‘the Keel Row’ in his orchestral Images. For my taste, however, the stand-out work among his piano duets is the archaic and wistful set of Epigraphes Antiques from 1914, which were reworked from a series of instrumental miniatures Debussy wrote for a presentation of Pierre Louÿs’ Bilitis poems—more recently Pierre Boulez has written a replacement for the lost celesta part and the works are performed under the title Chansons de Bilitis. These aphoristic, atmospheric works have a maturity and concision that few composers could match. By contrast, the three pieces of en Blanc et Noir of 1915, more famous by far, strike as brash heard directly after the Epigraphes. The “Black and White” pieces inhabit a soundworld closer to Debussy’s late Etudes than his Preludes, and have a muscular expansiveness—and are renowned for their difficulty. The two Rogés make light of the pianistic challenges, and their ability to match their respective piano tones gives the music a radiant unanimity. Drawing the CD to a close is an exhilarating rendition of Lindaraja, yet another Spanish-flavoured Debussy work.
Beyond their sheer technical difficulties, these four-hand pieces make huge demands on the psychic attunedeness of their performers, and Pascal and Ami Rogé deliver marvellously nuanced performances. The key to why I am so impressed by this CD lies in the subtle rightness of the Rogés’ readings—there are few enough consummate solo Debussyans, and to be able to produce such insightful performances in tandem is rare indeed.