The greatest Debussy recordings …. my choices …. what are yours?

Just for starters  …

Pelléas et Mélisande (Désormière, Warners)

Jeux (de Sabata, Testament)

Prélude a l’après … (Stokowski and his SO, Warners Icon)

Images for orchestra (LSO, Monteux, Philips/Decca)

Images for piano (Michelangeli)

Violin Sonata (Heifetz, Smith, RCA/Sony, or Thibaud/Cortot, Warners)

Trio Sonata [flute, viola and harp]  (Boston Symphony Chamber Players, DG)

Fêtes galantes (Teyte, Cortot, Warners)

La Mer (Toscanini, 1953, Guild – there are plenty of AT La Mers to choose from – also Karajan and the BPO, 1970s recording, Warners)

Préludes Books 1 and 2 (Egerov, Warners, and Michelangeli, DG – Pollini’s new Book 2 is also exceptional …. also Gieseking and Cortot and selections with Rubinstein)


… how about yours?




17 thoughts on “The greatest Debussy recordings …. my choices …. what are yours?

  1. Mark

    Great list Rob! I’m going to seek out those recordings I don’t have. Michelangeli Images I think is one of the best records ever made, that “stained glass” feel to the music…and gieseking’s recordings have the bonus of sounding like they come from another world, the way you can “hear the room”…like a field recording.

    Interested to know what you think of Debussy’s own recordings / piano rolls?


  2. Thanks for that Mark. I’ve recently been listening to Debussy’s piano roll recordings in Warner’s ‘Complete Works’ and they do strike me as pretty near the composer’s ideal of a piano that sounds as if hammers aren’t part of the mechanism. That said, as with most piano rolls, the dynamic range is uncannily even and although the lack of overt percussiveness is sometimes convincing I’m not entirely sure about the accuracy of what we’re actually hearing. Compromised reportage, I’d say. Best. Rob


  3. Dennis Jenkins

    An excellent list Rob. I have a number of your suggested recordings including the Michelangeli Images, Giesking Preludes, Monteux Images, Karajan La Mer all of which I treasure. I have recently acquired Haitink’s Nocturnes after you played it on your new Classic FM programme. I had forgotten how good it was! Also I very much like Guilini’s Philharmonia version of the Nocturnes(+ La Mer). I would also highlight Cantelli’s Debussy recordings as well.


  4. allanevans565053587

    Can’t get enough of Debussy! A major component of a shared inner life. I’ve been preparing the piano recordings for publication of Marius François Gaillard who goes deeper into each work than anyone I’ve ever heard. Horszowski met the composer when he was taking time off to attend Bergson’s Sorbonne lectures and magic dwells in his performances of the Children’s Corner Suite. The Loewenguth Quartet go quite far in his one and only quartet. The third movement’s viola solos emerge as a sultry alto sax ballad. Also the Capets! I’m smitten with Inghlebrecht’s conducting of La Mer, Nocturnes, Saint-Sebastian, and more. Jeux is a hard nut to crack. A live Rosbaud gets close to something but what is that something? And Percy Grainger went berserk over Pagodes, playing it like a gamelan transcription and Loriod’s Etudes are played by someone who knew where they could have led had he lived longer.


  5. Chris

    Never heard that Jeux, Rob! Will seek it out. What about the Etudes? I was excited by Uchida’s recording when it came out, but there must have been lots since…any favourites?


    1. Hi Chris. If Sony’s marvellous Charles Rosen box climbs down from its current exorbitant on-line asking price there’s a great set of Etudes in there – pristine and precise …. quite different to Uchida’s but surely as valid. Best. Rob


    1. Brilliant Jed! Look forward to seeing that. Currently sorting through the two ‘complete’ Debussy boxes, DG and Warners – one of the most complicated reviewing tasks I’ve ever undertaken. Goodness knows whether it’ll make any sense. Hope you’re well – and thanks for joining us here. Best. Rob


  6. Hi Allan. Great to see you here! Have you heard Ernest Bour’s Jeux? That’s also great – rather like Rosbaud I would imagine (they seemed like kindred spirits, interpretatively speaking). For me the end of the Quartet’s slow movement with the Capets – like the parallel passage in Brahms’s First Quartet with the Busch – is among the most moving chamber recordings ever made. I must check out the Ingelbrechts again – I have a fine Pelleás here with Jacques Jansen. Can’t wait to hear Marius François when they’re available. And Cortot? Samson François? the earlier Giesekings? Hope you and the family are well. Best. Rob.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Edwards

    Dear Rob,

    apologies for taking an eternity to respond (& for writing such a lot when I do) – am rather busy. An interesting list which I shall explore, as I am not overall very familiar with the Debussy discography, but I fancy I’ll differ significantly here and there.

    Violin sonata.- still seeking…(but a different ‘historical’ choice)

    My copy of the recording with Cortot is in the UK (& I’m in France) but certainly not Heifetz: I had a listen to the extracts available on line – not very happy with the degree of vibrato in mvt 1 (not much French restraint there); the 2nd mvt seemed better though there was a bit of rushing at the end of the extract; but the finale absolutely ruled it out for me – the rushing forward, smearing note into note that mars some of his other chamber recordings: no articulation, a travesty of the required style. ‘What about Grumiaux’? I wondered – but I found that famous recording also begins to sound dated, particularly in its use of vibrato with a hint ot autopilot rather than for expressive effect. The trouble is I still have in my head a performance by Sandor Végh, at the end of a masterclass in Godolphin Hall one Easter; it’s not the best performance of the violin sonata I’ve ever heard but the best performance of anything I’ve ever heard. In fact it didn’t seem like a performance at all: such was the mastery of colour, of timing, of nuance of dynamic, it was like being inside Debussy’s head as the idea for each passage came to him – you heard the notes and exactly what they meant simultaneously. It was extraordinary. It’s a shame that so few of Végh’s ‘solo’ recordings give any idea of what magic he was capable of when he was at his best (and not playing out of tune as he increasingly did as arthritis took hold). A performance that has something of the quicksilver imagination, the endlessly shifting subtleties, the range of colour of that Végh reading (though probably a bit more of the ‘quick’) is the Szigeti/Bartok from the Library of Congress recital. For a period recording this is FAR more to my taste than the Heifetz Rob – more inward, more urgent, all message and no show – and a much more ‘modern’ approach to vibrato, despite being from 1940. I wonder how you react to it.

    String Quartet – Arcanto Quartett (H Mundi)

    There are probably many good ones – I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the Capet – but amongst modern recordings I do love the Arcanto’s, coupled with a superb account of Ainsi la Nuit, which I suppose is responsible for a cover which must have put off more than one potential purchaser: Luce’s Seurat-style painting of an industrial landscape, ‘Couillet la Nuit’ (I don’t think Dutlleux imagined night ‘ainsi’ either!). The Arcanto realise beautifully the more dreamy passages of the Debussy (they make that old favourite recording by the Quartetto Italiano sound a bit wooden and prosaic at moments in comparison) but are vigorous and alert in the the more dynamic ones, and there’s a lovely rosiny texture to their sounds. For me they are the best quartet in the world at the moment, with the Hungarian half (sadly soon to be quarter) of the Takacs, and this recording tells you why – superb unanimity and precision combined with a moment to moment spontaneity of expression, imaginatively alive to every twist and turn of the work. Modern French quartets seem fixated with surface perfection: the Ebène can be amazing until they spoil things by playing something too fast just because they can; I heard and hated the young Arod at an audition day in Paris – glacial perfection that was an incredible achievement but totally inhuman, without personality or nuance. Of course that can work with Mendelssohn, so they made an excellent choice of first disc. I would love to hear what the less technically perfect but to me far more involving Ardeo make of the piece. The anniversary year might provide an opportunity to do that of course.

    Préludes book 2: Richter (BBC Legends) or Hashimoto (Nami Records)

    As you will remember Rob, when Kyoko Hashimoto’s CD of Schubert D.935 and Préludes book 2 came out it was the Impromptus which impressed me particularly, because I knew the recordings by Brendel, Uchida, Kempff etc. and so could judge. But I set about educating myself on recordings of the Debussy: I already had Gieseking and was not very impressed – I listened again 2 weeks ago and whilst it has a wonderful period charm he is just too brusque and summary with many of them. I bought Michelangeli and was not convinced – too cold and contained and unimaginative. Bavouzet was attractive, but absolutely not the piano without hammers Debussy had asked for. Aimard just incredibly bad – he can be great in contemporary repertoire, but rarely outside it.

    A French academic said Pollini was better than Michelangeli in book 1 but he really recommended Dino Ciani and Richter, who he said had understood everything that Debussy was about, though he now put Hashimoto on the same level. I found Ciani much more like it: far more imaginative use of colour, more humane, but variable – I’ve been listening again and Les Terrasses… for example is rather lacking in imagination. Canope is beautiful but in a rather neutral way – in other words not bad but not revelatory (Hashimoto gives tremendously imaginative readings of both).

    Richter (when I found the deleted BBC Legends discs containing his performance at Snape on 16 June 1967) was better again. So I set up a comparison, Prélude by Prélude between Hashimoto and Richter. About 9 Préludes in I regretfully decided that Kyoko wasn’t quite as good – she didn’t have quite the mastery of tone colour, was a bit more ‘notey’. But I pressed on, only to be surprised to hear not the next Prélude but the same one again, and realise that I had got confused and the pianist I had just consigned to 2nd place was in fact Richter. Kyoko’s playing of the same piece indeed confirmed my preference. It’s a narrow thing, and if you want fireworks (& not just in Feux d’artifice) Richter’s your man, even if he sometimes ignores Debussy’s instructions to achieve the brilliance. If you want subtlety, humanity and emotion, and a remarkable fidelity to Debussy’s markings in what is another concert recording, Kyoko’s the one to go for.

    Reading Jed’s review of the new Pollini book 2 I was pretty certain it was not going to change my preferences, and the other week France Musique played Les terrasses… in an evening discussion programme: “desperately seeking imagination” was the comment of the presenter and indeed I found it dire – cold, unimaginative, desperately lacking insight too. What is sad is that having to learn the immense piano part of Turangalîla set Kyoko’s recording plans back 2 years, and one possible project after the imminent Mozart CD had been Préludes book 1. (Still is, I imagine.) A complete set might have been available in time for the anniversary.

    (I bet you’re glad I haven’t had time to explore recordings of the orchestral works yet!
    An old, warped Charles Rosen LP of Images, Estampes, etc.,has been under a weight for months. I loved it as a child & hope to be able to play it at Easter. If I still find it good I’ll report back.)


  8. Many thanks David. I stay by Heifetz although I realise that the sheer intensity of his playing, its lack of ‘French refinement’ won’t appeal to everyone. Heifetz actually admired Grumiaux, who was in many respects his mirror image but at a far lower voltage, at least in certain sonatas. I share your keenness for Végh. I’ve just been listening to Christian Tetzlaff’s wonderful new recording of Bartók’s Second Concerto which is very Végh-like in its loose-limbed attack, tonal range and imagination. The older I get the more I’m inclined to ditch the idea of being loyal to specific artists and instead judging each performance on its own merits. A fairer method I think. Very best. Rob


    1. David Edwards

      Ah! Funny you should make that comparison – I once compared the Tetzlaff quartet to the Végh to someone for the sheer quantity of subtle things going on (even if I disagree here and there) – vastly more than with most quartets. I’ll look out for that concerto recording (I’ve only got 8!). Kyoko commented on the interestingly huge rubato in Debussy’s piano rolls in one of her London masterclasses, though like you wondering just how far one can trust them. Agree also that one must judge each performance on its merits – I listened to Ciani playing something else a few months ago and was disappointed, but his Préludes still strike me as wonderful. I don’t understand why they are so much less celebrated than Michelangeli’s. I always think how different the ‘standard style’ of pianism might now be if he had been here as a sort of alternative pole to the Pollini approach. Such a tragedy.


  9. Andy Thomas

    I realize this is an old thread and I am not a particularly sophisticated listener, but I am curious of anyone’s opinion of Claude Helffer’s effort with the Debussy’s solo piano on Harmonia Mundi. I was introduced to these recordings in college by a close friend who was a piano major via a dubbed tape off vinyl. I lost that tape and have purchased or listened to many of the performances mentioned. Thought these recordings are good I have not felt that lightness and flow that reminded of Helffer.

    Fortunately I recently tracked down the original vinyl via a box set from France and I am bliss again. Just curious since I am rather insecure about my tastes and perceptions in classical music.

    Andy Thomas


    1. Hi Andy

      Your tastes re Helffer would suggest that you shouldn’t feel in the least insecure about them. His playing is superb. As well as the Debussy, he’s done some brilliant Bartók – including a single disc featuring four masterpieces, Out of Doors, the Sonata, the Improvisations and the Suite Op. 14. I agree 100% about his Debussy – transparent, atmospheric, pianistically refined and unfailingly musical.

      Very best and thanks for writing,



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