In the midst of a Beethoven feast, I thought some less Germanic piano music might be welcome. Chopin? Nah, not right now. Prokofiev? I needed something less aggressive, not more. Debussy? Yes, Debussy would do nicely. I haven’t picked up any new recordings of Debussy piano music in a while, so I thought a new disc or two would be nifty. Fortunately, BRO has Daniel Ericourt’s 4-disc set of all of the solo piano music on Ivory Classics for a handsome $20. I’d seen some positive reviews, so why not. Upon reading the name Daniel Ericourt, your first reaction may very well be mine: Who? Turns out Mr Ericourt was born in France in 1903 and as a teenager got to know Claude and his family. Later he came to the good old US of A and took up various teaching positions at the Curtis Institute and UNC-Greensboro (which helped fund this set). Mr Ericourt was fortunate enough to live until 1998, and this set was released to celebrate his centenary.

On the evidence of the works I listened to tonight, Mr Ericourt learnt his Debussy exceedingly well somewhere. From the very outset it was clear that this is Debussy playing of a very high order. How high an order? I can say with confidence that only Gieseking and Michelangeli do better. Seriously. For no particular reason, I started with La plus que lente, a work I seldom listen to. Ericourt made me reconsider my listening practices. Soft, reticent, defiantly dismissive of expectation, Ericourt plays in a delicate, unpercussive manner, and the ultra-slow waltz evokes an image of a tired pianist freely inventing his dance piece for an audience of a few dedicated or dejected souls at 4:00 AM in a jazz club. It is atmospheric and free and enchanting.

Moving to a “big” work only improves matters. Pour le piano is a fine little ditty that always gets me going, at least in a good recording or performance. This beats “good.” Ericourt is fleet, light, and shimmering at the outset, and all of the faster passages display those general traits. To those traits, add a color palette of near Giesekingian breadth. A half-dozen notes can result in seven tonal shadings. Too, his touch is so minutely differentiated, his control of every aspect of the quieter end of the spectrum so absolute, that Ericourt can find almost as many shades and levels between p and pp as Wilhelm Kempff. The Sarabande shows this to magnificent effect. Slow and measured, it nonetheless commands undivided and selfish attention – no distractions, please! Now, add to the aforementioned traits the agility of Robert Casadesus or even Friedrich Gulda and one gets a Toccata of glittering, gliding delight. Ericourt’s dynamic attack is not Olympian, though the recording helps (or hinders) here, but his conception is not like, say, Ivan Moravec: no, his seeks that ideal of a piano played without percussiveness.

The Estampes further reinforces this. The Pagodes nicely evoke an Eastern feel, if ultimately Gieseking goes just that little bit further. (As luck would have it, I listened to some Gieseking in the afternoon.) Light and graceful through most of the piece, things are only hampered by brittle sound during some louder passages. The rising and falling passages at the end of the piece are so meticulously and brilliantly and shimmeringly played that I gained a new appreciation for Mr Debussy’s achievement. The Soiree dans Grenade opens in Le gibet fashion, and returns to a rocking (as in gondola, not The Scorpions), hypnotic slowness as appropriate. In more excited passages, Ericourt displays all of his strengths in an unassailably perfect blend. Jardins sous lapluie opens strikingly quickly, but with a feline grace that grabs the attention. To the end, it is near-ideal.

The two Arabesques here are remarkable. The first is ravishing. Ericourt continues to fastidiously eschew percussiveness, and the dividends are more generous than those Lee Raymond offers. His tone is very finely graded. His dynamic control, too. He displays all these things through the cleanly played, wonderfully articulated faster parts and the wondrous descending passages. Rarely have I enjoyed the piece more. Same with the second one. Flitting, graceful, and charming, it enchants.

To finish the evening, I chose four miniatures. First was L’Isle joyeuse. Ericourt knows when to dazzle, and here he does. His exuberant, extroverted playing never descends into ostentatious virtuosity, though. It fits perfectly. The Danse bohemienne is a perfectly delightful piece of juvenilia. The Berceuse heroique starts boldly, darkly, and more starkly than any of the other works on tonight’s menu, with an insistent low register ostinato underpinning long (relatively speaking, of course) passages. Otherwise, take the things I wrote about the other works and they apply here, too. I finished up with the Hommage a Haydn, which nice as the slow, little waltz and jaunty scherzo are, don’t really remind me of Haydn.

So what’s the catch, right? Sound quality. It ain’t so hot. All of the works were recorded between 1960 and 1962 for Kapp Records (huh?) and sound as though archiving was never the highest priority for that label. While not as bad as the atrocious sounding Walter Klien set of Brahms’ piano music, some distortion creeps in, and the sound can be brittle, bright, and downright unpleasant. Hiss and spurious noise are constantly variable, to the point where the levels undulate constantly in some places. It also sounds as though LPs may have been used from time to time. Big whoop, I say! This is a find. After getting Friedrich Gulda’s Amadeo LvB cycle recently, I was sure I had stumbled upon my big pianistic find of the year. Looks like I have another one. If the rest of the set is as good as what I heard tonight, this goes on the best of the year list for sure. Man, I want it to be Thursday (how often do you find yourself saying that?) so I can hear some more!


Night two started strongly. I opted to go for both sets of Images, and I don’t mind saying that these are some of my favorite piano pieces. Ericourt does not disappoint. The first set opens with a Reflets dans l’eau that is, appropriately, a wash of colors and dynamics. Ericourt’s exactness in building a crescendo or precisely controlling a run is superb and perfectly suits the music. Most importantly, he maintains musical tension in the slowest parts with seeming ease. And I swear that the end of the piece sounds like a musical evocation of raindrops! The Hommage a Rameau is a far more fitting homage than the one heard last night. The perfectly poised slow playing and gorgeous colors produce an exhilarating stillness – one waits perfectly motionless and, at times, breathless for the next note. The Mouvement spins in controlled, dazzling fashion, a perfect end to the piece. Alas, distortion at higher levels hampers the ambience at times, as do some rather pronounced noises of various sorts.

The second set opens with a Cloches a travers les feuilles that fully reveals all its rhythmic complexity, with each musical strand clearly defined, each figuration brilliantly executed. Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut basks the temple in moonlight, with moonbeams peering through a hazy sky, reflecting off the ancient, eroded surface and refracting through the complex of glass shards and cobwebs that fill the remnants of the windows. Debussy – and Ericourt – does his best to create a sense of mystery. The East is very mysterious, after all. Poissons d’or shows the effectiveness of this “impressionist” composer: the mercurial physicality of the little fish and its equally random effect on its environs come to life, with swift, seemingly unpredictable shifts in volume, speed, and range. Gentle tremolos and terse arpeggios punctuate it all nicely. Ericourt is fully up to the challenge of bringing these pieces to life. Never once did I stop intently listening to the music to focus on what he was doing. Higher praise is hard to come by.

Following these two big collections, I spun seven little works of varying quality – ranging from excellent to brilliant. Masques, with its little, galloping introduction giving way to a more traditional (for Debussy) sound world sounds light, fresh, and charming from first to last. The latter portion is played with an attractive boldness. D’un cahier d’esquisses is a marvel. Free, relaxed, its at times unusual patterns and textures sound simultaneously formless, aimless, pointless and captivatingly beautiful. Really, isn’t that the point? The Valse romantique is really a slight work, quite undanceable, but adequately romantic in nature to easily hold one’s attention for the duration. Le petit negre opens and ends with a Ragtime-y tune which flanks a charming slow section. The Nocturne, while good on its own terms, isn’t the stuff Chopin’s pieces are made of, nor Faure’s, for that matter. (But that’s a different post.) Still, it’s very good. The Ballade slave Ballade is superb. It is a ballade, romantic in nature, poignant at times, and wonderful to hear. Finally, the Mazurka is very well done, though, predictably, more Gallic than Slavic. Again, Ericourt deploys all of his tools I described before to bring the music to life. At no point did I feel I was hearing anything other than top-notch Debussy. Well, half the set is done. Some even mightier works await. I can’t wait.


The listening continued. This time the Etudes opened the session, and a fine batch they are. Ericourt brings to bear all of his previously outlined strengths in essentially perfect balance. Pour les “cinq doigts” opens plainly enough, with just the right sardonic bite. Ericourt gradually speeds things up, revealing each pattern with a translucence and lightness on level with the best. Pour les Tierces, with its denser, overlapping patterns, comes of relatively more opaque than some Debussy, but ‘tis still a delight. All I could think was a near Marv Albert “Yes!” Pour les Quatres effectively evokes the mysterious East, what with its exotic gamelans and such, but in a more abstract, oblique way than in other works. The use of pauses and long trills serve to add to the exotic allure. The middle section, with a subtle ostinato underpinning and surging right hand patterns serves as a nice detour before returning to conclude in mysterious mode. Ericourt is in his element, elegantly dispatching all without ever calling undue attention to himself. Pour les Sixtes opens in listless (and Lisztless) fashion, and proceeds to intermingle patches of weary languorousness and not quite strong and not quite weak outbursts. Even the dissonance is beautiful. Pour les Octaves, despite brittle and harsh sound, is revealed as a sort of understated virtuoso showpiece. A pianist can have the greatest technique ever and still blow it if the work is overcooked. Ericourt, his hands darting over the ivories, offers up a medium rare version; that is, it’s just right! Never is he vulgar or too showy. When the first book comes to a close with Pour les huits doigts, Ericourt sees fit to once again dazzle with his perfect blend of glitterin’ ‘n’ shimmerin’ ivory ticklin’.

The second book opens with a Pour les Degres chromatiques that is nothing less than a glorious, swift running musical river of color. Things progress to a Pour les Agrements that offers a profoundly musical treatment of all those tasty little ornaments that can make or break a piece. Should trills sound so good? (Beethoven previously answered quite strongly in the affirmative, thank you.) Should slides be so intriguing? Why yes, yes they should. Pour les Notes repetees, for all its seeming simplicity, charms in with its basic ideas. (Do I detect a whiff of Chabrier’s Bouree fantasque buried within?) Pour les Sonorites opposes starts in a somewhat distant fashion, but soon offers up rich sonorities (hah!) harking back to some of the slower parts of Images. Beauty after beauty is to be heard. Pour les Arpeges composes offers more of that glittering sound that both Debussy and Ericourt seem to enjoy so much, and all the various challenges are played with nary a worry to be heard. The work ends with a gloriously clangy and staccato laden Pour les Accords with biting, sharp, strong, dissonant, and ultimately irresistible playing to start and an almost romantic tone later on, though one tinged with melancholy. Ericourt performs fabulously throughout.

Next up: the Suite Bergamesque. Here Ericourt returns to that remarkably clean, clear, light and unpercussive sound that so impressed me at first. Both the Prelude and Menuet are presented as dusted off and updated ancient forms unencumbered by nostalgia or a need to prove anything to anyone. Claire de lune, at 5’12”, is about midway between where I like it and where it turns into soporific goo. It opens strongly enough, but Ericourt goes a bit too slow in some later parts. ‘Tis still good, though. Passepied returns to the style of the first two movements and ends the work in style. Following this is the charming little Tarantelle styrienne ‘Danse’ and the more moving Reverie with its grace and depth.

When looking back over the set, I discovered that I had neglected Children’s Corner. That was clearly unacceptable and required an immediate remedy. So back in the CD player went disc one. Lucky me! Dr Gradus as Parnassum starts off light and charming, but Ericourt soon proceeds to burn straight through it with striking speed and control, all while maintaining that lovely light tone. Jumbo’s Lullaby is suitably playful and sprightly, and the Serenade for the Doll comes off as delicate, dancing, and tenderly affectionate. (I could have sworn I heard a slight hint of some of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.) The Snow is Dancing sounds perhaps a little heavy for snowflakes (except in a rather heavy storm), but still the music does its best to create an imaginary world. The little Shepard does the same, even with its sharper sound. Finally, Golliwogg’s Cakewalk is a quick, unsubtle, and delightfully humorous close, no doubt charming for the kids but more biting for adults.

With three full discs of Debussy down, this set has turned out to be a magnificent find. Now only the great Preludes await. I’m betting they’ll be at least OK.


They’re better than OK. The Preludes stand as Debussy’s greatest contribution to solo piano music. The range of the pieces, the expressiveness, the unique deployment of almost every compositional technique around, then or now, all combine to make 24 basically flawless gems. I confess, I prefer Book I ever so slightly – it seems the more inspired of the two sets, though the second book sounds more refined and meticulously crafted. Of course, when I say I like one more than the other, that’s merely ordering, vaguely, two unquestionable masterpieces. So, to Book I: Right out of the gate, Ericourt is on target. Danseuses de Delphes is an exercise in measured precision and flowing sound that creates the aural equivalent of a frieze of ancient dancers. The brilliant effects are all rendered striking and clear. Voiles sounds as mercurial as the wind: seemingly random shifts of volume and intensity combined with minute tonal variations swirl and move about smoothly. One can easily envision a sailboat on Debussy’s beloved La Mer. Debussy and Ericourt continue their successful evocation of the wind with Le vent dans la plaine. This more blustery affair witnesses greater contrasts and greater flux. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir has long been one of my favorite of the 24, and Ericourt certainly doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing sounds wonderfully uncentered and ungrounded, with a fabulous, mysterious slowness and richness that sounds perhaps a bit like Gallic Scriabin. Les collines d’Anacapri is dancing and festive and a sheer delight. Des pas sur la neige offers a nice change of pace. Stark contrasts within the piece (and when compared to its predecessor) conspire to create a desolate, almost gloomy feel, with the continuing slowness building up the sense of isolation. Ericourt’s command is remarkable.

Opening the second half of the first book is Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest, the most powerful, indeed almost fearsome of the works. The powerful, pounding, percussive ferocity and musical violence, continuously underscored by a strong lower register and piercing right hand chords chill to the bone. But doesn’t the Erlkoenig deserve that? Ericourt plays splendidly, let down only by the sound. La fille aux cheveux de lin is sweet and innocent, and the more simplistic (sounding) writing evokes an old time, I don’t know, maybe Prelude. Is it fitting? I don’t know, are girls simple? (Or, more accurately, seemingly simple?) La serenade interrompue sounds as much like a guitar as a piano can or should, and possesses enough energy and textural clarity to be effective. The enchanting La Cathedrale engloutie has that mystical, mysterious sound that Debussy creates so well, and includes hints of his other works involving the sea. Tension and mystery build during the somewhat eerie crescendo and the subsequent slow passage reinforces the overall feeling. La danse de Puck and Minstrels are both charming, essentially sunny works that nonetheless have much to offer below the basic façade.

To Book II: Brouillards sets the tone for most of the rest of the works. The second book seems a little darker, a little more shaded than the first. Certainly this work, with its blurred, indistinct, uncentered, and ultimately slightly eerie feel doesn’t invite one in with open arms. It does compel one to listen with the utmost care, though. Feuilles mortes stays on this path, with its rich, slightly slow, and somber feel. As good as Ericourt is at playing the lighter, fleeter, more glittering music, he matches himself in this style. La puerta del Vino sees a forceful, muscular dance piece rendered undanceable, again. It’s sort of an abstract version of earlier dance pieces. Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses harks back to lighter Claude, but a certain tenebrosity pervades the proceedings, preventing it from achieving the same effect. I’m sure that was the desired effect. I rather like the effect. Bruyeres recalls the innocence and simplicity of the flaxen haired girl from years before, but a subtle undercurrent seems to reveal something other than purity. A hint of worldliness is to be heard. General Lavine - eccentric is humorous, witty, a tad vulgar, and just a little silly. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune once again finds some inspiration in the light of the moon, though now it is even more abstract and amorphous than before, though enticing sounds abound. Ondine is quite the enchantress: seductive, titillating, teasing, the almost slithering fingerwork almost makes her jump from the keyboard. Hommage a S Pickwick opens with that deliciously pompous, vulgar parody of My Country Tis Of Thee, er, um, God Save the King, before giving way to a scherzo-esque feel. Ericourt seems to relish playing it. Canope seems the height of musical simplicity and elegance, and Ericourt produces an effortless sound that makes the piece seem to float in the air, timeless and periodless. Les tierces alternees is played dizzyingly fast, though it comes off as a detached etude. Finally, Feux d’artifice brilliantly and virtuosically builds up to its dazzling display and makes a supremely satisfying conclusion to this magnificent set of works. Throughout, Ericourt is right at home, producing beautiful sound after beautiful sound and always doing what Debussy demands. Remarkable.

Having devoured the four-disc set in four days, I must proclaim my great fondness for this set. It is definitely one of the best sets I’ve bought this year, and Daniel Ericourt is a Debussy interpreter of great distinction. I suppose Gieseking still sets the standard for me overall, and Michelangeli’s Debussy recordings stand as awesome reminders of his towering greatness, especially in the Preludes, but this friend (or at least acquaintance) of the composer is several cuts above average. His touch is perfect for the music. His technique meets all challenges. His tonal range, too. Only the sound hampers the set. (Was HDCD mastering really needed?) That’s a minor issue. I’ll take this set as is and cherish it anyway. Very highly recommended.