An Exploration of Musical Impressionism: Building a Library of Claude Debussy

I am by no measure well-versed in the realms of classical music. The principal foci of my archive center around minimalism, ambient works, the classical avant-garde, and early milestone compositions of electroacoustic / musique concrète. But with that said, I understand and greatly revere the foundational soundworks which directly inspired much of what came to pass in 20th century music. Paramount among these are the musical impressionism of Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, (though Debussy, himself staunchly rejected the “impressionist” label). These composers’ use of musical “color,” unique chord combinations, ambiguous tonality, extended harmonies, use of modes and exotic scales, parallel motion, extra-musicality, and evocative titles were together fundamental in inspiring what came to be known as “ambient” music in the West later in the 20th century.

So it seemed only fitting that I obtain for my library the finest and most complete collection of these composers’ works. For the first stage of this endeavor, I selected Debussy as the target of my research. I began by securing collections and compilations and researching the release history of interpretations of Debussy’s work by various performers, and reading up on the mastering and performative quality of each.

 On compact disc I obtained –

  • A multi-volume collection of Alexis Weissenberg’s interpretations of Debussy on Deutsche Grammophon issued in West Germany in 1986
  • The Orpheus Trio’s renditions of Ravel, Faure, Debussy, and Devienne issued by Vanguard Everyman Classics in 1987/1980
  • Four of the five volumes of the 1991/2 EMI Classics France albums comprising unparalleled performances of Debussy by Aldo Ciccolini
  • The London Philharmonic’s performances of La Mer, Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune, and Jeux conducted by Serge Baudo issued by EMI Eminence in the UK in 1986
  • The Solomon Trio interpreting Ravel, Debussy, and Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Trio issued by Masters Pickwick Group in England from 1992
  • Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Debussy’s Images, Jeux, and Musiques pour “Le Roi Lear” issued by EMI Digital in 1990
  • Debussy – Images performed by Simon Trpceski issued by EMI Classics in 2008

Then I collected the following digital releases – 

  • Claude Debussy – The Debussy Edition [17CD+18th bonus disc of historical recordings] box set issued by Deutsche Grammophon in 2012
  • Debussy · Ravel – Orchestral Works [8CD] set directed by Jean Martinon featuring Aldo Ciccolini on piano, recorded by Sale Wagram, Paris, 1973 & 1974 issued by EMI Classics in 2002
  • Claude Debussy – The Complete Works For Piano performed by Walter Gieseking [4CD] set issued in 2006

I found some particularly interesting details about the Gieseking 4CD set.

Cristofori on Amazon reviewing Gieseking’s The Complete Works For Piano stated:

There aren’t many historical/mono classical recordings that I can firmly say have not been bettered by more modern renditions but Gieseking’s Debussy are among a handful that have yet to be surpassed. Gieseking’s use of tones and colors is amazing. Listening to his playing puts you in a dreamlike state. There may be more technically perfect pianists out there but I have yet to hear one that gives the same kind of feel and nuance as does Gieseking’s.

These recordings, made in the mid 1950’s near the end of Gieseking’s death, are his final say on the piano music of Debussy. Many aficionados will point to his 1930’s renditions as superior but truth be told I can’t give an opinion as I haven’t listen to those much. I do know that his first Debussy cycle has always been harder to find and sound quality may be hit or miss depending on who is doing the transfers.

The mid 1950’s mono sound on these recordings actually enhances the listening experience rather then take away from it, giving it a ghostly, ethereal quality that cannot be duplicated today. This new 5CD box by Warner is probably the cleanest these have ever sounded but I actually don’t mind the “haze” on some of the older editions as it adds to the dreaminess of Gieseking’s playing.

Curiously, upon researching this release further, I discovered that the original 1990s CD release was later remastered for Super Audio CD and issued as a hybrid 4xSACD set in Europe in 2012.

Additional commenters on Amazon described the noticeable improvements on the Super Audio edition. Leeber Cohen said:

This is an incredibly wonderful box !!! I learned the Suite Bergamasque and Chidren’s Corner Suite decades ago and I forgot how much I enjoyed Gieseking’s performance which was one of my favorite LPs as a child. Gieseking is a perfect pianist for this music. His range of color and dynamics is very close to perfect. I agree with the other reviewers that the quality of the recorded sound in these CDs is a vast improvement. I compared my 1990s copy of the two books of the Preludes to this CD and the haze is pretty much gone. Please obtain these 5 CDs while they remain available. The box is budget priced and is an incredible bargain.

And Thomas said:

I like this remastered version better than the remastered version of 1992. In this newer version, all the notes are clear and resonant. In the older version The notes sound shallow and muddy.

Also, on vinyl, my library already included the following – 

  • The Debussy – Leonard Slatkin, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra – La Mer • Prélude À L’Après-midi D’Un Faune • Danses Sacrée Et Profane LP issued by Telarc Digital from 1982

  • Tomita – Snowflakes Are Dancing (The Newest Sound Of Debussy), comprising Tomita’s arrangements of Claude Debussy’s “tone paintings” performed on a Moog synthesizer and a Mellotron

Snowflakes was released by RCA Victor in 1974. It was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1975, including best classical album of the year, and it was NARM’s best-selling classical album of the year.

The release notes for the La Mer Telarc Digital LP state the following about the recording and mastering:

During the recording of the digital masters and the subsequent transfer to disc, the entire audio chain was transformerless. The signal was not passed through any processing device (i.e., compression, limiting, or equalization) at any step during production.

Sampling frequency conversion of Telarc’s Soundstream digital master to the Compact Disc format was accomplished with the Studer SFC-16 sampling frequency converter. The digital information was not subject to any analog intersteps, thus preserving the integrity of the original digital master.

My goal was to acquire as complete a library of Debussy’s work as was available in the vinyl format. I performed a search on the Discogs database for complete box sets of Debussy’s works issued on vinyl and I found the following:

  • Claude Debussy, Werner Haas – Complete Works For Piano Solo • Das Klavierwerk • Œuvres Pour Piano Seul – 5LP (Netherlands) and 6LP (Spain) complete piano solo box set
  • Claude Debussy, Walter Gieseking ‎– L’Œuvre De Piano5LP box set
  • Claude Debussy – Louis De Froment, Orchestra Of Radio Luxembourg – His Works For Orchestra Volume I: La Mer, Prelude A L’Apres-midi D’un Faune, La Plus Que Lente, Le Martyre De Saint Sebastien, Le Triomphe De Bacchus, Le Roi Lear, Marche Ecossaise, La Boit A Joujoux, Excerpts From L’Enfant Prodigue, Berceuse Heroique – 3LP box set of Complete Orchestral Works Vol 1 which is concluded with:
  • Debussy – Orchestra Of Radio Luxembourg, Louis De Froment – His Works For Orchestra (Complete); Vol. II – 3LP box set
  • Debussy*, Peter Frankl – Complete Piano Music Volume 1 & 2 – Volume 1 is 1LP, Vol 2 is 3LPs
  • Claude Debussy – Jörg Demus – Complete Piano Music – 8 single-LP volumes issued by the Musical Heritage Society

My interest was primarily in Debussy’s solo piano works, so my ideal choice of these vinyl editions appeared to be Claude Debussy, Werner Haas – Complete Works For Piano Solo • Das Klavierwerk • Œuvres Pour Piano Seul which was only issued in the Netherlands and in Spain.

When I researched the production history of that particular release further, I discovered that some of those  recordings were issued on two CDs in 2007 by Philips Classics, though reviewers on Amazon make note of the noticeably quiet mastering and subtle hiss present on the CDs.

Listener on Amazon had this to say:

Debussy’s music is not meant to be performed with exaggerations, as many other pianists do in their recordings of his music. Haas offers what is on the page and does it beautifully. The playing is also, from a technical aspect, absolutely perfect. I cant find any “Teutonic” qualities as the other reviewer said. Instead I found much tenderness and subtlety as there should be. There only bad quality I could find is with the recording. Since it is old, from the late sixties, there is a noticeable hiss, especially in the quieter passages. It is, as with the case of all Philips CDs, slightly expensive for the amount of music, but nonetheless still a great purchase. This is a must buy. I only lament that this, along with his equally great recording of Ravel’s works, is all there really is from Mr. Haas. 

This vinyl box set includes an 8-page LP-size booklet with musicological notes in English, German and French. There are a few differences between the Netherlands and Spanish editions, most noticeably the language of the cover text. The Spanish edition also includes a sixth LP, featuring the works for two pianos or piano 4-hands, but I opted for the English packaging to facilitate interpretation of the track listing.

I’ve been performing similar research for the music of Erik Satie and have selected a vinyl box set of his complete piano works but it is an exceedingly rare import so I’ll have to postpone that project for the time being. Still, Haas’ Complete Works For Piano Solo is a wonderful beginning for this journey.