Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Complete works for solo piano - Volume 5
Jeux (1913) [16.56]; Khamma (1910) [19.37]; La Boîte à Joujoux (1913) [28.01]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 5-6 May 2009
CHANDOS CHAN10545 [64.47]

Even before my copy had dropped through my letterbox, reviews of this CD could be read all over the place - mostly laudatory ones too. So I waited several weeks before listening. In fact I am, like everyone else, very impressed. I’ll explain.

I suspect that Jean-Efflam Bavouzet had expected to record Debussy’s complete piano music in the four volumes, already very well reviewed. The chance arrival of the piano score of ‘Khamma’ seems to have set him on the path of also tackling the other two ballets for a single disc. In fact Debussy always produced for the ballet pianist a usable rehearsal version. In the case of the score for ’Jeux’ Bavouzet remarks in his additional essay (there is also a general one by Roger Nichols) “A note from the artist” that Jeux was “genuinely unplayable by one pianist”. This was mainly due to the composer’s habit of adding, above and below the basic staves, extra flourishes and phrases as an aide-memoire for the later orchestration. A few years ago Bavouzet made a four-hand version of the ballet but for this recording had to manage the performance alone and without any ‘jiggery-pokery’ in the recording booth. The result was “one of the most difficult works I have ever played”.

On opening the booklet one espies a rare photo of Debussy with that marvellous and under-rated composer André Caplet who died young in 1925. Debussy wrote to Caplet that in composing this Diaghilev-commissioned ballet “I forgot the troubles of the world so as to write music that was almost joyous with the rhythm of gay gestures ... I am thinking of orchestral colour that seems back-lighted”. At first I heard the work in its orchestral guise then I heard Bavouzet. Make no mistake, in the piano version much is lost but Bavouzet has a way of almost reproducing orchestral colour, with his touch, pedalling and phrasing - a truly remarkable achievement. It must be remembered that ‘Jeux’ is actually called a ‘Poème dansé’ and the ‘plot’ if I can call it that, is a somewhat erotic ménage à trois concerning three tennis players, two females and a male who, in the search for a tennis ball, dance both separately and in various pairs, and as a three-some eventually resulting in a combined kiss. This precedes the surprising arrival of a second tennis ball just before the music evaporates. Sadly for Debussy and Nijinsky whose ‘vulgar’ choreography Debussy failed to enjoy, ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ hit the world just two weeks later and Debussy’s score was forgotten for fifty years.

Oddly enough ‘Khamma’ is also a ballet about a girl who dances herself to death. This time the ballet is set in ancient Egypt involving propitiation for the ‘sins’ of a besieged city. The music which represents Debussy at his most experimental consists of four scenes and a series of three internal dances the whole woven together with stylistic consistency. The composer only orchestrated the first three or four minutes. There was much confusion and argument about the orchestration and contractual details. Charles Koechlin orchestrated the rest after Debussy’s death. The first concert performance of the orchestral version - which I have not heard myself - took place in 1924. The piano version is remarkable in the orchestral effects which can so readily be heard. The trumpets near the beginning are, for example, particularly striking. I would like to hear what little Debussy did orchestrate.

It may be odd to think of Debussy as having been influenced by Stravinsky but the fact is that the plot of the ballet ‘La Boîte à Joujoux’ is not unlike that of ‘Petrushka’. Cardboard characters act out a love tragedy instead of circus dolls. In addition ‘La Boîte’ like ‘Khamma’ has a major role for the piano although, again, Debussy never completed it. André Caplet did that, and quite brilliantly too.

In fairness to produce a new ballet in 1913 on the eve of the Great War and just a few months after ‘Le Sacre’ was probably doomed. We should be grateful that Debussy was much inspired here by the games and toys of his seven year-old daughter ChouChou. Why not, after all the work is subtitled ‘Ballet pour enfants’. One way in which Debussy creates this atmosphere is by quoting children’s songs, especially in the final tableau. These songs include ‘Pop goes the weasel’; indeed you could have much fun playing ‘spot that tune’, what with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and Debussy’s own ‘Danse Nègre’. Towards the end did I not also spot a quote from part two of ‘Le Sacre’?

We should be delighted that Debussy found the energy and patience to stick with the task of completing the ballet. It is great fun to listen to either version. However, as a stand-alone piano piece I am not so sure. Whereas ‘Khamma’ is integrated and almost symphonic in construction ‘La Boîte’ because of the nature of its material is a bit more fragmentary and programmatic. In addition the characters are individualised musically. For example the soldier can obviously be represented by a trumpet and a fanfare has been written for him. There is an enigmatic toy-waltz for the doll and a curious figure in seconds (Petrushka again) for Punchinello.

My only criticism is that Chandos should have given the first tableau its own track instead of linking it to the Introduction. Otherwise this is a marvellous disc and the climax in so many ways of Bavouzet’s complete Debussy cycle.

Gary Higginson