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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa