The exciting atmosphere
of the French baroque renaissance has
stimulated some very fine music indeed.
The style, with its emphasis on purity,
clarity and technical brilliance has
produced some distinctive interpreters.
When they bring their insights to modern
music, their approach pays dividends.
There has been a renaissance, too, in
Debussy songs, so it's good to hear
what a singer like Sandrine Piau does
with them. Her grounding in the French
baroque tradition makes for a voice
trained to express precise nuances and
textures. In Debussy this highlights
the refinement of the writing to great
Before Debussy and
Fauré, the French art song tradition
was barely developed. . Berlioz's Nuits
d'Été was not widely
known and inspired no direct descendants.
Like Schumann before them, Debussy and
Fauré sought inspiration from
the finest poetry. The earliest song
here is the unpublished Les Papillons,
where the teenaged Debussy sets a poem
by Théophile Gautier. Piano and
voice flutter, like butterflies. Piau
holds the last note with grace, fading
into the air .... Debussy wrote many
of these early songs for his then lover,
Madame Vasnier, whose very light tessitura,
in an age before microphones, was heard
to best effect in private performance.
The delicacy is complemented by the
use of a type of piano, typical of the
period, an Erard from 1897, owned by
the pianist Jos van Immerseel. These
pianos, called demi-queues, were
used for chamber music and voice accompaniment
because of their delicacy. He explains
that "unlike a modern piano, the
strings are not crossed (over-strung)
but parallel ...... the straight stringing
gives each register a specific quality.
The bass recalls the sonority of a bassoon,
with dry, rounded, well-articulated
sounds: the tenor is "speaking"
bright and open, the treble limpid and
crystalline." And so does Piau
use her voice, like an ethereal instrument,
clear and pure.
Here we have the first
version of En Sourdine from Verlaine's
Fêtes galantes, which would
inspire so many composers. Verlaine
appealed to Debussy because of his straightforward
unadorned language, contrasting with
its intense symbolist imagery. This
first version, known by its first line
Calmes dans le demi-jour, is
lighter than the later version. Darker
textures may bring out the full richness
of the songs, but here the fine singing
gives the music an attractive, transparent
In Ariettes Oubliées,
also to Verlaine, Debussy entered another
level of development.
Notice how the piano
part mirrors the metre of the poem.
The first two parallel lines of C’est
la extase are reflected in the slow
opening. As the poem gathers in excitement,
the music gathers pace. In L’ombre
des arbres there’s hardly any piano,
for the vocal part curls so exquisitely
around the words that it’s like heightened
recitation, with a cry of anguish at
the end. This understated minimalism
again shows in Aquarelles: Spleen.
The voice rises to a climax on "et
de tout, fors de vous", but
the real ending is the barely whispered
"Hélas". A listener
has to be alert to catch the power of
this single, understated word. Aquarelles:
Spleen is part of a pair with Aquarelles:
Green. Debussy sets them in contrast
to each other, making the poignancy
of Spleen stand out even more
strikingly against the gentle Green.
Piau’s voice may not have the elegant
sensuality of Véronique Gens,
but Piau's careful phrasing and deft
articulation of the musical line throw
the structure of the songs into focus,
allowing us to appreciate their beauty
in pure form.
When setting his own
poems, as in Proses lyriques,
Debussy gave much greater emphasis to
the piano. Indeed, he called De Rêve,
a "poem for piano with voice".
In these songs, van Immerseel’s delicate
but forceful playing comes into its
own. The Erard displays its lovely tone.
By the 1890s Debussy was sailing into
modernism, rebelling against the impact
of Wagner on European music. It’s interesting
to compare De fleurs with Wagner’s
Wesendonck songs. Both are hot-house
exotics of repressed passion, dedicated
to married women, but musically they
are so different. Piau’s "white"
singing enhances the subtlety. In comparison,
even Christine Schaefer sounds deep-timbred.
Both somewhat similar voices create
different interpretations of the same
songs. Debussy’s modernism surfaces
in De Soir. "Dimanche"
declares the voice, celebrating Sunday’s
suburban bourgeois escape from the city.
Yet the underlying mood is ironic. The
ancient religious meaning of Sunday
is evoked in the passage " Prenez
pitié des villes, Prenez pitié
plus de cœurs, Vous, la Vierge or sur
argent", sung like plaintive
inspired Debussy from youth (his setting
of Apparition from 1894 is the
first track on the recording), and it
was to this poet he returned for what
was to be his last cycle, Trois poèmes
de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913).
These exquisite songs are among
the finest in song literature. François
le Roux , the baritone and himself a
specialist in Debussy, writes of Soupir,
"Piano and voice join together
for meditative evocation of the symbolic
garden, almost Japanese in its sharp
outlines". In Éventail,
where piano and voice flirt like glances
from behind a fan, as in a duel between
bird and hunter, le Roux points out
the tonal instability. Notes hang in
the air, unresolved, pregnant with unspoken
meaning. It’s a miniature masterpiece
which Piau and Van Immerseel carry off