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Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
CD 1
La Mer (transcribed for piano duet by André CAPLET (1878 – 1925) (1908)) (1903/1905) [22:44]
Nuages and Fêtes, from Nocturnes (1893/1899) (transcribed for piano duet by Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937) (1908)) [12:45]
Images (transcribed for piano duet by André CAPLET) [34:06]
Prélude à l'après midi d'un faune (1892/1894) (transcribed for piano duet by the composer) [9:05]
CD 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Six Studies for pedal piano, op.56 (1845) (transcribed for piano duet by Claude DEBUSSY (1891)) [17:11]
Camille SAINT–SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
Introduction et Rondo capriccioso, op.28 (1863) (transcribed for piano duet by Claude DEBUSSY (1889)) [8:39]
Caprice on airs from Gluck's ‘Alceste’ (transcribed for piano duet by Claude DEBUSSY (1889)) [12:20]
Peter Il'ytch TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Three dances from Swan Lake, op.20 (1875/1876) (transcribed for piano, four hands, by Claude DEBUSSY (1880)) [9:33]
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Overture to The Flying Dutchman (1841) (transcribed for piano, four hands, by Claude DEBUSSY (1890)) [10:20]
Jean-Francois Heisser; Georges Pludemacher (pianos)
rec. January 1991, Studio 104, Radio France, Paris (CD1) and June 1993, Auditorium du Louvre, Paris (CD2)
WARNER APEX 2564692098 [69:36 + 67:08] 



Experience Classicsonline

I have always felt more than a little sorry for André Caplet, working tirelessly for and on behalf of his friend Debussy at the expense of his own abilities as a composer. Not only did he help with the orchestrations of certain pieces he also made arrangements for piano - with many different numbers of hands - of the orchestral works. Here's a very timely and sensible re–issue, giving us two major Caplet arrangements – including a splendid version of La Mer – two thirds of Ravel's version of the Nocturnes, and several of Debussy's own arrangements for keyboard. 

La Mer, like the Prélude, is one of those pieces which just had to written at the time that it was, because it defines the direction music was taking and these works shine like beacons showing us the way. La Mer is so much more than a seascape, it is true symphonic music, it has a special urgency, a dynamism, the ability to transcend mere musical matters. Caplet's transcription strips the music of its orchestral gloss and shows us the bones of the music, so we can hear exactly how this masterpiece was crafted. It's an astonishing achievement and Heisser and Pludemacher give a really full-blooded account of the piece. 

Nocturnes is one of Debussy's earliest major orchestral works and Ravel's version of the piece is magnificent. Here's one of the greatest orchestrators who ever lived, reducing a marvellously orchestrated work to the keyboard and making total sense of the music. Nuages is all half tones, foggy Victorian streets, gas lights, Fêtes is a bright summer festival, and it's quite astonishing how Debussy's "Dazzling, fantastic vision," as he called the middle section, still has the power to thrill in this version. Images is a colourful travelogue calling in at Spain, France and England, more specifically Northumberland. Because of the popularity of Iberia, the middle panel of the triptych, the outer pieces have been unduly neglected and that is unfair for it has robbed us of some very fine music. 

These three works receive superb performances and are a real joy to listen to. Nowhere does one feel that one is listening to an orchestral work in an arrangement, it's just music, and very fine music at that. 

That the second CD is slightly less interesting is only because, with one exception, the music is not by Debussy, only the transcriptions, and some were obviously not done with anything more than a fiscal interest from the composer. The disk begins with Debussy's single most famous, and musically groundbreaking, composition – the work with which, according to Pierre Boulez, 20th century music begins – the Prélude à l'après midi d'un faune. This work is sensuality in music writ large, it simply oozes sex from every note, and even without the orchestral trappings it's still a very erotic experience. Debussy's own transcription is quite miraculous in managing to keep the atmosphere whilst changing the medium of expression completely. 

The Schumann Studies display a very baroque feel in this version, clean and precise lines are the order of the day and Debussy's transcription, in this case, is probably more labour of love – he did express an interest in Schumann whilst at the Paris Conservatoire – than folding matter. Saint-Saëns was no lover of the music of Debussy – he remarked that the famous Prélude was " much a piece of music as the palette a painter has worked from is a painting" – and this transcription of the justly famous Introduction and Rondo capriccioso arose from a commission from the publisher Durand. I am sure that Debussy's transcription transcends the original remit for it's so good that if you didn't know the original you'd never know that its origins lie in a virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra! Incidentally, there's a lovely arrangement of this same piece for violin and piano by Georges Bizet. This is fabulous indeed. The Caprice is one of those operatic fantasy pieces so beloved of 19th century composers which, on most occasions, tell us less about the original material than about the arranger. This is lovely and totally forgettable. 

That Debussy should have been employed by Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness, seems too much of a joke to be true, but it is true and the Frenchman went to her when he was 18. These three dances are quite fun. The same can be said of the transcription of the Overture to The Flying Dutchman, which is salty and tangy and very heavy indeed. 

Whilst I can understand the good intentions of making these recordings of Debussy's transcriptions of other composer's music, I do wonder if we'd have been better served by a second disk of transcriptions of Debussy's own music – there's a version of La Mer for two pianos, six hands, by Caplet and a superb arrangement of the same piece for solo pianist by Lucien Garban (1938), to mention but a couple, and what about Debussy's own transcription, for two pianos, of La Mer, or even his early pieces for multiple pianos?

But I am being unfair for these two disks offer insights into a side of a great composer which is unknown to many, and should be heard by all Debussy devotees. The notes are brief and the sound is bright and clear.

Bob Briggs


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