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 "...as 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
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.