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Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
Mélodies de Jeunesse: Apparition, Romance, Les paillons, Calmes sans le demi-jour, Regret.
Ariettes Oubliées: C’est le extase, Il pleure dans mon coeur, L’ombre des arbres, Paysages belges: chevaux de bois, Aquarelles - Green, Aquarelles - Spleen
Proses lyriques: De rêve, De grève, De fleurs, De soir.
Trois poèmes de Mallarmé: Soupir, Placet futile, Éventail
Sandrine Piau (soprano), Jos van Immerseel (piano)
rec. Liège, July 2002. DDD
NAÏVE V4932 [57’25"]


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 effect.

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 The earliest song here is the unpublished Les Papillons, where the teenaged Debussy sets a poem by Théophile Gautier.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 feel.

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 medieval chant.

Mallarmé had 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 stylishly.

Anne Ozorio



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