> Debussy Chamber Works A303 [TH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb-International

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Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Chamber Works

String Quartet, Op. 10 (1893)
Syrinx for solo flute (1915)
Cello Sonata (1915)
Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915)
Violin Sonata (1916-17)

Sigiswald Kuijken; Veronica Kuijken; Sara Kuijken; Wieland Kuijken;
Barthold Kuijken; Piet Kuijken; Sophie Hallynck.
Recorded at the Cultural Centre at Lommel, Belgium, September, 1999
ARCANA A 303 [71:32]


Experience Classicsonline

On paper this looks like the ideal Debussy chamber collection; all the important works are there, and as far as I know this is the first time they have all been gathered together on one disc. Of course there are numerous versions of individual pieces, but the closest to this collection is a Chandos disc by the Athena Ensemble, which omits the string quartet in favour of two much shorter works (both for clarinet and piano), the Première Rhapsody and Petite Pièce. This makes for a less generous playing time, and is an analogue recording (though very good).

So in many ways the present recording has the field to itself, as we not only get the best possible overview of Debussy’s work in the chamber field (early and late), but wonderfully idiomatic performances from members of the talented Kuijken dynasty, on instruments of the period. Don’t let the last few words put you off; I’m not a great fan of the ‘authentic’ lobby, but in this case you would be hard put to even guess that these were mostly instruments of the composer’s time. Probably the most obvious is the Erard piano used in the Cello and Violin Sonatas; this dates from 1894, and was restored in 1996. I know from personal experience that these are wonderfully transparent, delicately voiced instruments that are perfect for this music, lacking obvious weight and sonority compared with a modern Steinway, but making up for it in so many other, more subtle ways. Listen to the opening flourish of the Cello Sonata and it’s obvious there is something different but not unpleasant or ‘clangy’ about the tonal quality. The lighter action also makes tricky passages come alive for the pianist; try the ‘animando-agitato’ passage (around 2’05") and hear the beautifully gauged textures that Piet Kuijken is able to produce. He is partnered very ably by Wieland Kuijken; indeed, one gets the distinct feeling throughout the disc that this family have played these pieces many times at home for sheer pleasure.

The String Quartet in G minor of 1893 was Debussy’s first real masterpiece in the chamber medium, and also his farewell to conventional key signatures. It also boasts the most formidable competition for the Kuijkens, with at least two dozen versions available, most of them coupled (logically enough) with the Ravel Quartet. My own long-standing favourite is the Alban Berg Quartet (on EMI), and at first I thought this latest performance lacked their rhythmic drive and energy. However, the timings for each movement are remarkably similar on both versions, and repeated listening reveals the Kuijkens’ knack of beginning in a fairly relaxed fashion and gradually ‘screwing up’ the tension as Debussy develops his ideas. Listen to the start of the development section of the first movement (around 3’ 05") to hear what I mean. Without appearing to speed up, the music gathers an irresistible momentum that propels it to its conclusion. Very satisfying.

Syrinx, for solo flute, is evocatively performed by Barthold Kuijken on an Auguste Bonneville instrument of 1910. The tone is plangent, with a slight edge that at first seems to miss that ‘hazy’, impressionistic quality we have come to expect. However, this is presumably the sort of sound Debussy had in mind when conceiving the piece, and, again, repeated listening reveals a subtly different ‘take’ on a familiar piece.

The same flute is used in the ethereal Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (the latter interestingly also made by Erard) of 1915, one of Debussy’s most inspired creations. The ‘other-worldly’ quality of much of the piece is atmospherically captured by the Kuijkens, especially the gorgeous, almost improvisatory, opening pastorale movement. None of the nuances of this often elusive music are missed and the end result is very compelling.

The most famous member of the family, Sigiswald, plays the marvellous Violin Sonata, and again the strong competition is safely silenced. The rhythmic pointing of the très animé finale is brilliantly captured, with the balance between the delicately voiced Erard and the 1899 Bovis violin admirably caught. Debussy was already mortally ill when the sonata was written, and the bleakness and despair of much of the writing in this wartime piece has not escaped these intelligent musicians.

The recording is slightly on the dry side and is fairly closely balanced, though not distractingly so. The packaging is exemplary, with beautiful reproductions of contemporary art, together with a well-annotated booklet in four languages.

Even if you have alternatives, this is well worth seeking out.

Tony Haywood


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