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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arr. Benno Sachs (1894/1920) [10.50]
Sonata for violin and piano (1917) [13.41]
Sonata for cello and piano (1915) [12.17]
Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) [17.07]
Syrinx (1912) [2.42]
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Rec October 1977 (Prélude), March 1970 (remainder), Symphony Hall, Boston

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During the last years of his life, the years of the First World War, Debussy turned his attention to chamber music, describing himself with typical under-statement as a ‘musicien français’. He planned to create a series of six pieces featuring various ensembles, one of them for the unlikely combination of oboe, trumpet and harpsichord. In the event he lived to complete only three.

All three pieces are gathered in this collection, beautifully performed by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and they are all masterpieces that could have been composed by no-one else. They reflect a certain neo-classicism, as though Debussy was deliberately paying homage to the music of his forebears in a time of national adversity.

First came the Sonata for violin and piano, in 1915. It is cast in three movements, though lacking a conventional slow movement. Debussy prefers instead to engage in a subtle ebb and flow that passes through varying characteristics but with a masterly sense of line. These subtleties are well articulated in this performance by Joseph Silverstein and Michael Tilson Thomas. In 1970 when the recording was made, Tilson Thomas was making a name for himself as a young conductor in Boston, while Silverstein was the orchestra’s leader. In due course he too turned to conducting, in particular with the Utah Orchestra. He was a fine violinist who made some notable concerto recordings too. He and Tilson Thomas present a characterful rendition of the Sonata, pleasingly recorded.

Tilson Thomas is also the pianist in the Cello Sonata, in which he is joined by Jules Eskin. While the recorded sound tends towards reverberation in the ample space of Symphony Hall, the results remain satisfying. There are just two movements, the first featuring one of the composer’s best tunes. The music is strongly articulated and highly individual, and the same might be said of this committed performance.

The Sonata for flute, viola and harp deploys a distinctive instrumental combination, and has become a classic of the chamber music repertory despite the idiosyncratic instrumentation. The three movements are beautifully balanced and the textures imaginatively articulated. Since the three instruments are so different from one another, the onus is placed particularly upon the quality of the playing. The Boston musicians are on triumphant form.

If the flautist Doriot Anthony Dwyer was heard to excellent effect in the Sonata, the focus is unequivocal in the celebrated Syrinx for solo flute. No flautist would dare record this piece without being capable of passing the test, as it were, and so it proves. The recording is pleasing enough too.

The programme commences with an arrangement of an orchestral masterpiece. The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune remains one of the most significant works in the orchestral repertory, often cited enthusiastically as the gateway to modern music. Be that as it may, the languorous beauty of the orchestral textures is such a feature of its effectiveness that an arrangement for chamber ensemble may cause raised eyebrows. Benno Sachs, who was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, made his arrangement in time for a premiere at the ‘Association for private musical performance’ in October 1920. Clearly this was an act of homage, since Debussy had died a matter of just months before, in 1918.

The ensemble Sachs employs is actually quite large: two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, antique cymbals, piano and harmonium. Therefore the transformation is not too much of a shock, and of course the opening flute solo is exactly the same. The inevitable criticism is that the pared-down scoring loses the languorous quality of the original, which after all could be described as the work’s most important characteristic. Even so, the clarity of the articulation and the sensitivity of the phrasing make this recorded performance most enjoyable.

Terry Barfoot

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