The wonderful Australian Eloquence series from Universal
continue to delve into the back catalogues of Decca, Philips,
ABC Classics and Deutsche Grammophon. This
reissue of six of Debussy’s
orchestral scores, recorded between 1952 to 1979, proves
a veritable treasure trove.
The Marche écossaise or ‘Scottish march’ was originally
a score for piano four-hands entitled ‘March of the ancient
Earls of Ross’. Debussy wrote it in 1891 in response to
a commission from General Meredith Reid. He orchestrated
the score in 1908 but not without grumbling about, “some
scandalous failings” in the score.
Debussy composed the Berceuse héroïque or ‘heroic cradle-song’ at
the start of the Great War to express his sympathy for
King Albert I of Belgium and his country’s soldiers. The
composer originally thought about writing a march but
decided that a berceuse would be more appropriate. The Berceuse
héroïque was originally for
piano score before Debussy later orchestrated it. The Belgium
national anthem makes a shadowy appearance.
In 1897 the Pleyel Company introduced
a new design of harp. They dispensed with the traditional
pedals to produce semitones and added extra strings; one
for each semitone. To help establish the legitimacy of
the chromatic harp the company in 1903 commissioned Debussy
to compose a score for harp and string orchestra. Debussy
obliged with his Danses pour harpe et orchestre; one ‘sacred’ and
the other ‘secular’. The chromatic harp never caught on,
however, Debussy’s Danses pour harpe et orchestre, in
a slightly reworked version for diatonic harp, has become
established in the repertoire.
Captivated by the music of Wagner,
Debussy in his twenties twice visited Bayreuth. Parsifal made
a lasting impression on his music. Its influence infuses
parts of Debussy’s La demoiselle élue (1888), Pelléas
et Mélisande (1893-95), and Le martyre de
Saint Sébastien (1911). The
incidental music to the symbolist poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s
mystery play Le martyre de St. Sébastien is a lush
and dramatic work that was written in only two months.
In contrast to the sacred nature of Wagner’s Parsifal, Le
martyre seemed calculated to shock the Parisian bourgeoisie.
The mystery play was inspired by Gabriele
d’Annunzio’s fascination with the eminent and scandal-attracting dancer
Ida Rubinstein who had conquered Paris the season before
with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Debussy left some
of the orchestration of the score to his pupil André Caplet,
who conducted the premiere. The four Fragments symphoniques from
the incidental music are often performed independently
in the concert hall.
Although the score was named by
Debussy as the Première Rapsodie for clarinet and
orchestra he never wrote a second Rhapsody for the clarinet.
Originally composed as a chamber score for clarinet and
piano for the Paris Conservatoire, the Rapsodie was
begun in 1909 and orchestrated in 1911.
Jeux (Poème Dansé) is the last
orchestral work by Debussy. Commissioned by Serge Diaghilev’s
Ballets Russes in 1912, with the scenario and choreography
by Vaslav Nijinski, the ballet contains some of his strangest
harmonies and textures. At first Jeux was overshadowed
by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, composed
in the same year as Jeux and premiered only two
weeks later by the same ballet company. Decades later,
composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué pointed
out parallels with Webern’s serialism.
There are some fascinating Debussy
scores in this collection which includes three rare recordings
from Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum, two of which are
with his beloved Concertgebouw. Van Beinum conducts with
such affection and generosity that one could almost mistake
them for major scores. I doubt that they have ever been
afforded such high standards of performance as presented
in these 1957 recordings. From even earlier, in 1952, Eduard van Beinum directs the Chamber Music Society of
Amsterdam in the Danses pour harpe et orchestre with glowing expression and
clear textures. Harpist Phia Berghout is in superb form and provides a performance that draws the
listener right to the heart of the music. The Danse
Profane section, with its killer-tune, is absolutely
glorious and a highlight of the release.
In the four Fragments Pierre Monteux and his London
Symphony Orchestra provide excellent playing in this 1963
recording. I was especially impressed with the way Monteux
was able to convey an ethereal quality to episodes of this
exhilarating score. The brass playing is characterful with
an appealing timbre and is especially memorable.
Recorded in 1976 and 1979 respectively,
the last two works on this release are the Première
Rapsodie and Jeux under
Haitink; who was the Concertgebouw’s Chief Conductor between 1964 and 1988. Haitink and his
players do not disappoint in persuasive interpretations
of high contrast with subtle phrasing and impressive rhythmic
control. In the Première Rapsodie clarinettist George Pieterson displays a silvery
tone in a performance of substantial character. Jeux is given a warm, unaffected
and convincing reading with excellent ensemble.
There are no discs that programme exactly the same scores
as contained on this release. The nearest is from Chandos
on CHAN7019 with the Ulster Orchestra under Yan
Pascal Tortelier, using various soloists, a
release that has received considerable acclaim. In the Danses
sacrées et profanes I would not wish to be without
the 1967 recording from Nicanor Zabaleta with the Paul
Kuentz Chamber Orchestra on DG Eloquence 469 689-2. The
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Serge Baudo recorded
wonderful versions of the dance-poem Jeux and the Danses
sacrées et profanes, with harpist Karel Patras,
in 1966 and 1977 respectively at the Dvořák Hall,
Prague on Supraphon SU 3478-2 011. A favourite version
of the Première Rapsodie is played by clarinettist
Gervase de Peyer with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under
Pierre Boulez on Sony SM2K 68327.
This Eloquence release makes for
a delightful Debussy collection, excellently performed.