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How did Debussy and the musicians in his circle perform his works? What did he listen for when he coached performers? Were his performance expectations similar for pianists, singers and conductors? Through a rich array of contemporary recordings, memoirs, letters and reviews Debussy is the first composer for whom we can answer such questions in a definitive way. This chapter begins with a consideration of Debussy's own piano playing and the advice he gave to various pianists, some of whom later recorded his works. Subsequent sections are devoted to the singers and conductors who came in contact with him, and to their recordings.
‘I have never heard more beautiful pianoforte playing’
So thought Louise Liebich, Debussy's first biographer, when she heard him play ‘Danseuses de Delphes’. Certainly his piano playing was very different from the dry, highly articulated style of many of his French contemporaries. It is likely that his tone-sensible approach was fostered by his early teacher Mme Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have studied with Chopin. It was she who prepared him for admission to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Antoine Marmontel, a highly regarded teacher. Marmontel's comments on Debussy's performances at the Conservatoire's year-end competitions ranged from ‘charming musical nature’ (1874, for a piece by Moscheles) and ‘true artistic temperament’ (1875, for Chopin's Rondo, Op. 16) to ‘careless and inaccurate, could do much better’ (1876, for the scherzo from Heller's Sonata, Op. 88). Other repertoire that Debussy studied during his seven years with Marmontel included Bach's Toccata in G minor, Beethoven's Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, Weber's Piano Sonata in A♭, Thalberg's Sonata in C minor, Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Fantaisie, Ballade No. 1 in G minor and Allegro de concert.
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