Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien [77:08]
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano); Dagmar Pecková (mezzo); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); Dörte Lyssewski (speaker)
Collegium Vocale Gent/Christoph Siebert
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. Konzerthaus, Freiburg, January 2005. DDD
GLOR CLASSICS GC08181 [77:08]

This recording has disappointment written all over it. It’s a squandered opportunity to bring a musically intriguing but obscure work to the surface.

Debussy’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian remains something of a footnote in the composer’s output, distinguished only by its contemporary notoriety. First performed in Paris in 1911, Le Martyre was commissioned and performed by dancer and impresario Ida Rubenstein. A cross between an oratorio, ballet and play, it was promptly condemned by the Archbishop of Paris, who threatened to excommunicate anyone who attended performances. Most of the work consists of several hours of obscure prose by Gabriele d’Annunzio, interspersed with musical preludes, choral pieces and solo numbers by Debussy.

In rare performances and recordings, d’Annunzio’s prose is either cut out entirely or severely reduced. In this recording, however, producers decided to commission German writer Martin Mosebach to write a new text to carry the drama forward. This was a big mistake. For a start, Mosebach’s spoken text is in German, a language that jars with the mystical dreaminess of the sung French passages. Surely it would have made more sense to commission a new text in French, or leave it out altogether and fill the disc with more music. There isn’t even a translation of Mosebach’s work in the sleeve-notes, or an English translation of the French vocal passages.

These flaws detract from what is an interesting musical patchwork, infused with an exotic, Byzantine flavour that brings to mind Szymanowski’s opera King Roger. There are also shades of La Mer and, inevitably, Debussy’s only other completed stage work, Pelléas et Mélisande. The dance and hymn in the first tableau (track 5), for example, employs woodwind, horns and high violins to create an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of the castle vault scene in Act III of Pelléas. The addition of contrabassoon further deepens this impression in tracks 6 and 15.

There are also passages of attractive originality. ‘Erigone’s Song’ (track 8) is a sublime ariette, superbly sung by soprano Heidi Grant Murphy. Equally impressive is the Roman-style march in the prelude to the third tableau (track 11). The strident brass seem to prefigure Respighi’s Pines of the Appian Way. The performers of the SWR Symphony Orchestra and singers from the Collegium Vocale Gent do a superb job, and the recorded sound is laser-sharp. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the project was misconceived from the start.

John-Pierre Joyce