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Debussy’s Early Chamber Music

Research Event in Piano Gallery, Royal Academy of Music, London, 8 June 2012

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, writer & pianist Roy Howat [standing] was joined by Peter Sheppard Skærved [violin] and Neil Heyde [cello, R] for a public seminar exploring the young composer’s first essays in the field of chamber music: the Piano Trio of 1880 and two cello pieces of 1882.

This workshop was spontaneous and natural, talk amongst themselves, with the audience privileged listeners, enjoying quite esoteric discussion and alternative playings of controversial passages. It provided a window into the mysteries and attractions of research detective work and analysis of findings.

The musicians/academics illustrated the complexities and challenges of preparing Roy Howat's forthcoming new edition for the Oeuvres completes de Claude Debussy, demonstrating to the most receptive of us how editorial rethinking can sharpen our perception of these still little-known works, and of Debussy’s skills as a young composer, very different from the familiar one of his later life.

A rewarding afternoon, as are so many at RAM, which attracted some 70 people to pack the piano gallery.

q.v. Howat's 'The Art of French Piano Music' Yale University Press

Peter Grahame Woolf

Debussy Piano Music Vol 4
The youthful Debussy

Roy Howat (piano)


Danse bohémienne (c.1880)
Intermède (c.1880)
Rêverie (pub.1895)
Mazurka (pub.1903-1905)
Danse (pub.1903)
Ballade (pub.1903)
Valse romantique (pub.1903)
2 Arabesques (1891)
Suite bergamasque (1905)
Nocturne (1892)
Children's corner (1908)

TALL POPPIES TP165 [73 mins]

I met and talked with Roy Howat at a Royal Academy of Music (London) seminar yesterday. The day before, entirely by chance, I received from Australia his Debussy recordings for review! Tonight, he has a Chabrier event at RAM.


Sampling the (very) complete Debussy piano works (several discoveries in his researches, and the fullest of annotations in the liner notes) I quickly formed the view that this was Debussy as I wanted to hear it, and wished I could make (the easier) pieces sound like that.


The secret is his philosophy, which excludes "aggressiveness" and the combination of sympathetic instruments, venues and audio engineering. I will concentrate on the most recent, but have enjoyed already the Études in Vol.1, less strenuous than some others.


Vol 4 has early works, some of them very familiar to piano pupils young and old. Andras Schiff, beginning a notable series at Wigmore Hall, challenged audiences to his Chopin and his Idols recitals by deploring the commonly held assumption, that " pianos should always be black and made by Steinway". Howat recorded this completion of his integrale at Newcastle Conservatorium, on an Australian piano, Stuart & Sons No 1, presided over by Wayne Stuart himself.


The outcome is pellucid playing of the greatest transparency and sensitivity to the voicing of the music (q.v. Music Web's full appreciation) which, however, doesn't go into the question of 'horses for courses' i.e. the right piano for particular composers.


Peter Grahame Woolf


Another view of Howat's Debussy:

Debussy Piano Music Vol 3

Pour le Piano , Estampes , Preludes Bk 1 etc


Roy Howat (piano)

Tall Poppies TP164


Is there a right way of playing a composer's music? Roy Howat has a magnificent track record as a French music scholar, and as a stylist in its interpretation (Chabrier as well as Debussy). Pieces of Debussy are still being discovered, not least by Howat himself, and this disc has a musicological highlight, a first recording of Debussy's tribute to his coalman, whose generosity kept him warm in the winter of 1916-7. Howat's playing is intentionally faithful, admirably clear and intellectually transparent in his interpretations.

But if we listen to a great pianist play Debussy - say Michelangeli, Richter, or Gieseking - we equally hear the music work not only as impressionism but also pianism. Maybe fireworks, maybe poetry. When, in that famous phrase, we hear that the piano no longer has hammers it is not because of some careful stylistic respect, but because the master pianist is a magician of the sound-world. We are exalted in ways that Howat, sadly, does not come near. Perhaps, as a performer, Debussy himself could not achieve this, but his interpreters must strive to.


Ying Chang


If you are seriously interested in Debussy and his piano music, get these CDs (there are four of them) from Tall Poppies and make up your own mind about these opposed responses and tell Musical Pointers?

The issue raised by their contrast is also tackled in an absorbing novel about the pianist's life, frustrations and triumph, Conrad Williams' The Concert Pianist, in a section in which the two attitudes are set beside each other: - - the modernist view that if you do what the music says and play with stylistic accuracy the music will speak for itself; and the contrary view that what makes a performance work is an insight into something not manifest in the score - - (Conrad WilliamsThe Concert Pianist p 145)