1888-91: Debussy: Arabesques No. 1 in E major

SATURDAY, September 26, 2020 – 2:30 AM

1888-91: Debussy: Arabesques No. 1 in E major, age 26-29

The Two Arabesques (Deux arabesques), L. 66, is a pair of arabesques composed for piano by Claude Debussy when he was still in his twenties, between the years 1888 and 1891. This is the first of two.

I am currently teaching this piece, so I did some research to get an idea of how various people play it, so here are some I found.


You should listen to this carefully for ideas, but never assume that just because a composer is playing his music he’s doing a better job. You need to know that this beautiful stereo sound is an illusion. He recorded this on a very complicated player piano in something called a “piano roll”, and while it’s  miracle that we have these things, it never reproduces the sound of the actual player. We can still here things, and sometimes he flat out fakes. Sometimes changes his own notes, usually with no reason except that he winged this. There are some fascinating things though. I would keep many of his ideas in mind, because there is a special charm to his playing, and it tells us a lot about what he had in mind.

Zoltán Kocsis

This is, of course, very good. His touch is really good, and there are nice nuances. But should it be this fast? You decide. His pedal is very good, meaning that he holds the pedal, but at times he changes it more than usual, and that gives him a very transparent sound. I really like his. Note that all these players play with a lot of rubato, and that’s just not in the score. It can’t be.


I never heard of this guy, but his recordings are all over the place. This is sort of in the middle, slower than Kocsis. I personally very much like the sound here. I don’t like it hurried. But Debussy hurried a lot in spots. The problem is that we never know which performance a composer would prefer. This is nice for following the score. Of the versions I’ve heard, this would be my pick, but an honorable mention to Debussy, who could have practiced more and who was very inconsistent – but still there are things he did that no one else does, and I would like to keep those details and study them carefully.

Menahem Pressler

He starts slower, and I actually like that, but he often changes the pedal in the middle of a chord, and his LH is sloppy. Sometimes in ritards he completely stops. I definitely do not like this version. There are incredible old pianists who don’t sound old but rather they just age well, like fine wine. But this guy sounds old, like he’s lost a lot of whatever he had when he was younger. The middle section sounds so fussy, so slow, so ponderous. But maybe others will hear something I don’t.

Francois-Joel Thiollier

This is REALLY slow. But it’s very even, very vieled, very thoughtful. I think it’s a bit too slow, but he is very convincing. At times his LH starts to drown out the RH melody, and that’s not good. The greatest just never let that happen.

Hélène Grimaud

She’s doing things I really like. The pedal is very masterful. The tempo is in the middle, not too slow, not too fast. At times I’d like her to pedal a bit more often. So I like some things a lot, others not so much.

Other pianists

YouTube is amazing, and I’m sure there are other good versions I missed.

Now, why this piece is so hard…

It’s famous. The whole world knows it. That means that if you learn it and play it badly, everyone will know it. There will  be no mercy. In addition, it just sounds like a nice relaxing, innocent little piece, which means it sounds really good. That means it’s hard. If you hear great pianists make something sound effortless and “just right”, then it’s extremely difficult to pull that off. It means the notes may not hard, but getting it to sound great is. It also means that if you are able to play something famous like this is a way that impresses professional musicians, you accomplish something almost impossible.

2 thoughts on “1888-91: Debussy: Arabesques No. 1 in E major

  1. Debussy’s piano roll startled me, since I’ve heard this before and even studied it a bit. And yet it makes sense. It feels like there are some principle notes that tell the story, and the others are a tapestry the can be slow or rush forward to decorate the mood of those main notes. That’s how I feel it. …. Grimaud, she seems to bring a life into it, some of the life of Debussy’s but with more finesse.

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