- Études (12) for piano in 2 books, L. 136
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Even upon its first release, Mitsuko Uchida's 1989 recording of the Debussy Études was deemed a classic, and to this day it remains the obvious top recommendation for this music. Best known at that time -- and arguably still today -- as a Mozart specialist, Uchida revealed her deep sympathy for a very different musical style with this disc. Set out as a series of exercises addressing specific technical problems, Debussy's twelve Études focus on different intervals (thirds, octaves), on chromatic patterns, repeated notes, and other tricks of the trade. And while Uchida has most evidently absorbed those lessons fully, bringing a stupendous technique to the music, the pianist draws the listener in to the composer's unpredictable, shimmering world of sound while banishing any thoughts of the abstract lessons being taught. From the mock-simple opening of the First Étude to the dizzying filigree of the Sixth, and from the crystalline attacks of the Ninth's repeated notes to the hazy mysteries -- as "impressionistic" as anything Debussy composed -- of the Tenth and Eleventh, Uchida makes the listener realize that this set of pieces is more than a late and somewhat unusual entry in the composer's catalogue. Rather, it represents nothing less than a summation of Debussy's career and his stylistic innovations. Uchida's recording is not only the benchmark against which all subsequent versions are judged, it also taught us to hear this music anew.