One of the most interesting series of piano recordings in a long time is the one Paul Jacobs has been making for Nonesuch, which includes little-known but worthwhile material such as the six Sonatinas of Busoni (H-71359) and a traversal of all the keyboard works of Debussy. Following his very successful recordings of the Etudes (H-71322) and the two books of Preludes (HB-73031, two discs), the third installment in Jacob's Debussy cycle (H-71365) is as intriguing for what is played as for how it's played.
This appears to be the first record released in this country to include the Images Debussy composed in 1894 (the year of The Afternoon of a Faun ). The two later sets of Images (1905 and 1907), also on this disc, were designated "Series I" and "Series II" because Debussy never published this early one, which he composed as a personal gift for a 17-year-old girl; this music did not see print until last year.
Like the later sets, this one comprises three pieces, but they do not bear descriptive titles. The nearest thing to that is the heading of the last piece, Quelques aspects de "Nous n'irons plus au bois" : the first two pieces are headed simply Lent (melancolique et doux) and Dans le mouvement d'une "Sarabande. " The latter was revised in 1901 for use in the suite Pour le Piano, and the third movement became a point of departure for Rondes de printemps, the last of the three Images for orchestra, composed in 1909-10.
The fourth work on this record is another three-part suite, Estampes (1903). All of this music is given the most elegantly sympathetic attention. Instead of the evocative aural haze to which Walter Gieseking and so many other interpreters of Debussy accustomed us in the past, Jacob's approach is crystalline. It is by no means a mere X-ray, but in the best sense revelatory -- so convincing in its clarity and depth that it seems to call for the term "realization" rather than "interpretation."
Clarity and depth are also outstanding characteristics of the recorded sound, another fine job by the team of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz and the mastering wizard Robert C. Ludwig. Mention must be made, too, of Jacobs' own comprehensive annotation, which offers more real information on this music than any other source known to me.
Another especially striking piano record is a Chopin collection played by Peter Serkin (RCA ARL1-3344; cassette ARK1-3344). The program begins with the Variations brillantes on a Rondo from Herold's Ludovic (Op. 12), a fascinating piece that has been as neglected as Debussy's early Images. There are also two nocturnes (Op. 15, No. 1, in F; Op. 62, No. 2, in E.), a contrasting clutch of mazurksa (op. 56, No. 2, in C; Op. 41, No. 3, in B; Op. posth. in A-flat; Op. 33, No. 2, in D; Op. 68, No. 4, in F minor; Op. 7, No. 1, in B-flat), the Waltz in A-flat, Op. 64, No. 3, the Nouvelle Etude in A-flat, the posthumous Prelude in the same key, the Berceuse (Op. 57) and the Barcarolle (Op. 60).
Many collectors prefer the convenience of "integral" recordings of the mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, etc. (and why not, when Rubinstein has done them all?), but I don't think anyone who loves this music will mind duplicating the pieces in Peter Serkin's assortment, for his playing is at once poetic without posturing and truly distinctive without a trace of self-consciousness. Fresh thought, deep feeling and a high level of communication are the operating factors here.
In this case, too, the annotation (by Harris Goldsmith) is exceptional, and the sound is outstandingly vivid. This disc, in fact, is likely to appeal to audio buffs as strongly as to Chopin enthusiasts.