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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Marche écossaise (1891, orch. 1908) [6.01]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [4.05]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum
Danses pour harpe et orchestre (1903-04) [9.36]
Phia Berghout (harp)
The Chamber Music Society of Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien: Fragments symphoniques (1911) [21.53]
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Première Rapsodie (1909-11) [8.22]
Jeux (Poème Dansé) (1912) [19.00]
George Pieterson (clarinet)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, June 1952 (Danses), May 1957 (Marche; Berceuse), December 1976 (Rapsodie), May 1979 (Jeux); Wembley Town Hall, London, May 1963 (Martyre). ADD Mono/Stereo
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 476 8502 [69.21]

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.
Michael Cookson




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