Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
CD 1
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892/1894) [9:17]
Trois esquisses symphoniques: La Mer (1903/1905) [22:09]
Nocturnes (1893/1899) [22:53]
Jeux (Poème dansé) (1913) [17:21]
CD 2
Clair de lune (Suite bergamasque) (1890/1895) (orchestrated by André CAPLET (1878 – 1925)) [4:13]
Petite Suite (1886/1889) (orchestrated by Henri BÜSSER (1872 – 1973) (1907)) [13:13]
Première Rapsodie (1910) [7:26]
Printemps (1887) (orchestrated by Henri BÜSSER (1908 or 1913)) [14:49]
Images (1906/1912) [33:56]
Robert Gugholz (clarinet), L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet
rec. June 1949 (Images); March 1951 (La Mer) October 1951 (Nocturnes and Prélude); October 1953 (Jeux); October 1955 (Clair de lune); May 1957 (Printemps); February 1961 (Petite Suite) and December 1964 (Rapsodie), Victoria Hall, Geneva ADD
Re–issues of Decca recordings lw 5031 (Prélude); LXT 2524 (Images); LXT 2632 (La Mer); LXT 2637 (Nocturnes); SXL 2027 (Jeux) SXL 2136 (Printemps); SXL 2303 (Petite Suite) and SXL 6167 (Rapsodie), Victoria Hall, Geneva ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0127 [72:02 + 74:06]
CD 1
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (partly orchestrated by André CAPLET) (1911) [52:54]
Six épigraphes antiques (1914) orchestrated by Ernest ANSERMET (1883 – 1969) (1932)) [15:14]
CD 2
Khamma orchestrated by Charles KOECHLIN (1867 – 1950) (1912)) [19:32]
La Boîte à Joujoux (1913) (orchestrated by André CAPLET (1919)) [29:41]
Marche écossaise (sur un thème populaire) (1891 orch 1908) [5:39]
Danse (Tarentelle Styrienne) (1890) (orchestrated by Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937) (1922)) [5:49]
Suzanne Danco (soprano), Nancy Waugh (alto), Marie–Lise de Montmollin (alto), Union Chorale de La Tour–de–Peliz, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet
rec. October 1953 (épigraphes); June 1954 (Le martyre); October 1955 (Marche); SXL 2136 (La Boîte) April 1958 (Danse) and December 1964 (Khamma), Victoria Hall, Geneva ADD
Re–issues of Decca recordings LXT 2927 (épigraphes); LXT 5024 (Le martyre); SXL 2027 (Danse) SXL 2136 (La Boîte) and SXL 6167 (Khamma), Victoria Hall, Geneva ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0130 [68:16 + 61:05]
Thank you very much, I said, when I found these four CDs lying on my doormat the other morning. I sent my review in immediately: “These are amongst the best Debussy interpretations ever put on record and you cannot live without them”. The powers that be wrote back to me: “not everyone who reads MusicWeb is as old as you, Bob (the cheek of it!), and therefore not all of them know about the magnificence of Ansermet’s Debussy recordings. Can you please expand on what you wrote?” I quickly responded with “These are amongst the best Debussy interpretations ever put on record, now in brilliant sound, and you cannot live without them”. Still not enough for them in charge. Some people are so hard to please. However, if, like me, you’re a big fan of Debussy you will be pleased with these re–issues for they are superb. I will expand on my theme.
Starting as a mathematics professor at the University of Lausanne, Ansermet first conducted in Montreux in 1912 and between 1915 and 1923 was the conductor for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He founded the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 and conducted it for the rest of his life. Ansermet met both Debussy and Ravel, discussing their music with them, and becoming their lifelong interpreter, recording all their orchestral works. What we have here are interpretations as close to the composer’s own ideas as is humanly possible.
One thing we all know is that the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was never, during Ansermet’s tenure, amongst the greatest orchestras, but they worked and made many recordings, becoming world famous. In May 1954 Decca Records, with whom the orchestra had a long contract, made the first commercial stereo recordings in Europe with Ansermet and his orchestra. These recordings span the whole of the second half of Ansermet’s conducting career and the whole of Debussy’s compositional career.
Musically, the Petite Suite is not typical Debussy in any way, but, somehow, Henri Büsser’s orchestration seems to give it more life than it has in its original garb. Ansermet and his orchestra play very well indeed and the performance is lively, full of gaiety, and totally unpretentious. Printemps shows a surprising leap forward in Debussy’s technique and style. It’s still not as deft nor as subtle as what was to come in the very near future, but it has much to commend it. Conceived for chorus and orchestra, this version was created by Büsser and it incorporates the choral parts into the orchestral texture. It’s a lovely piece and Ansermet brings out the wide range of colour with such clarity! The recording captures the orchestra very well indeed and the balance of the orchestral piano is excellent. One thing puzzles me. At the 2001 Proms Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave the premiere of a new realisation of the original score for chorus and orchestra by Christopher Palmer and it’s odd that this very fine version hasn’t been taken up by any performers or recording company. Until then we must be happy at having such a fine performance on disk.
Ravel’s lovely orchestration of the piano piece Tarentelle Styrienne, which he named Danse, is a pleasant rush through the work. I cannot see why Ravel would have wanted to make this arrangement for the original isn’t one of Debussy’s best piano pieces by a long way, but perhaps it was the slightly exotic quality of the music which appealed to him. However, it’s quite agreeable and makes a delightful fill–up at the end of much seriousness. Clair de lune, from the Suite bergamasque, in the orchestration by André Caplet, receives a limpid, transparent performance which is just right for this delicate music. Marche écossaise is a piece of fun, nothing profound, just a jaunt round a theme. Again, it makes a nice fill–up. Strangely, at one point the music sounds as if it was a piece of nature music by Delius!
According to Pierre Boulez, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune marks the start of 20th century music – it also marks the start of Debussy’s mature style. He’s right, for here is something very new, very exciting and quite unique. Ansermet chooses a perfect tempo, allows for a lot of the most subtle rubato and directs a magnificent performance, full of allure, sex and mystery. Wonderful. The sound is good but if you play this track at too high a volume you’ll hear the thin violin sound; turned down the sound is perfectly acceptable.
Nocturnes and La Mer are probably Debussy’s best known orchestral works after the Prélude and Ansermet does them both proud. His are strong, slightly understated, performances which radiate romantic warmth whilst, at the same time, being full of impressionistic elusiveness. Ansermet builds some mighty climaxes and is as tender as you could wish for in the quieter passages. These are real highlights of these two sets.
The orchestral Images is one of Debussy’s best sets of pieces, being full of the most wonderful tunes, brilliant orchestral sound and local colour – the three pieces depict three areas; England in Gigues, Spain in Ibéria and France in Rondes de Printemps. This is Ansermet’s 1949 recording of the work – there is a later version in stereo – and the sound is slightly restricted, but not so much as it will worry you. Raymond Tuttle’s notes here are odd, to say the least. He claims this to be the second of Ansermet’s two recordings of Images but there is the later, stereo, version (Decca LXT 5650 (mono issue) and SXL 2287 (stereo issue) – a splendid performance, coupled with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of wind instruments and Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte, which seems to be unavailable at the moment). Also he makes the claim that Gigues is about Scotland, saying the tune The Keel Row (which Debussy quotes) is a Scottish tune, but as far as I understand it, this tune is of Northumbrian origin, and concerns the keelmen of Tyne and Wear, who loaded coal onto keels for movement down river, and lived in the Sandgate area outside the city walls, hence the words of the song:
As I came thro' Sandgate,
Thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate,
As I came thro' Sandgate, I heard a lassie sing:
We'll ma'e the keel row,
The keel row, the keel row,
We'll ma'e the keel row,
That my laddie's in.
So we can rest assured that this music is about England. These are fine, strong performances, which are, in general, well characterised, and the transfers are very good, but the oboes do, from time to time, sound a little acidic, and at 4:17 in Gigues there’s a moment of quite distinct pre–echo! Once or twice there’s the sound of side swish, but it won’t bother you. On occasion, such as the climax of Rondes de printemps, Ansermet is apt to be a trifle po–faced, and he fails to inject the music with the required amount of jollity, but these are mere moments and they pass. As there is such a wealth of good things here it’s a factor not worth thinking about.
Première Rapsodie, for clarinet and orchestra, was written as a test-piece for the examinations of the Paris Conservatoire in 1910. The soloist here, Robert Gugholz, had been a member of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for 25 years when he stepped into the limelight to give this performance. He plays it as if he’d worked with the composer, so authentic is his performance. Ansermet supplies a solid, but still discreet, accompaniment.
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien is a very long play by the Italian poet and playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio. Debussy accepted the commission to write the music because he was expecting a refined mystery play, but discovered that it was a sensational vehicle for Ida Rubinstein and her legs! As a play it wasn’t a success but Debussy’s music has survived and Ansermet recorded almost the complete score. This music seems to show every facet of Debussy’s music; there’s a little impressionism, a lot of modernism, some very tender moments and quite a bit of ecstatic vocal writing. Here Ansermet directs a somewhat understated performance which helps to highlight the mysticism. There’s some splendid brass playing to be heard and the solo voices are excellent, especially the marvellous Suzanne Danco. At the end there is a feeling of sexual eroticism as the Saint dies from his arrow wounds, which is what I suspect d’Annunzio wanted. Choir, soloists and orchestra are very well captured in this full-blooded recording.
Khamma brought Debussy 10,000 francs as a commission fee and, for a man always short of folding matter, this proved most welcome. On completion of the work, dancer Maud Allen, for whom it was written, started suggesting changes and one can imagine that it was at this moment that Debussy lost all interest in the piece. Certainly it wasn’t performed, in the concert hall, until 1924 nor was it seen as a ballet until 1947. Although there are many typically Debussian fingerprints in the music it must be said that this is not a typical Debussy score, nor is it one of his best. The general belief is that he wrote the piece for the money and that I can well believe. Ansermet directs a very persuasive account of the music but even he cannot dispel ones disappointment with the score.
Jeux is a difficult piece to perform for, of all Debussy’s works, it is the most elusive in form, content and orchestration. This seems to me to be the most modern and forward-looking of all Debussy’s scores and, no matter how it works as a ballet, in the right hands this is a wonderful concert piece. This performance is one of the very best in this set: the sound is full and warm and there is a rich bloom to it. This should win some fans for the piece.
La Boîte à Joujoux is a real delight, and although it’s not top-notch Debussy it’s very enjoyable and great fun, in some measure thanks to André Caplet’s marvellously evocative orchestration, which includes a part for solo piano. The music quotes from other works, and I always think of this piece as a kind of subtle and gentle counterpart to Ibert’s Divertissement! Again, Ansermet hits exactly the right tone and gives a lovely lightweight account.
Six épigraphes antiques was written for four hands at one piano and the pieces are very delicate flowers, light, with a feeling of other–worldliness. It’s a gorgeous suite for the keyboard. Ansermet’s, very careful, orchestration is totally faithful to Debussy and he hasn’t tried to inflate the music – others, including Rudolf Escher, have orchestrated this music but none have managed to get the real Debussy feel to their versions. Both as an arrangement and as a performance this is a resounding success.
Despite the fact that the orchestral playing isn’t perfect, and there is a lack of erotic sensuality, these are still superb interpretations and give an insight into this, sometimes mysterious, music which no other conductor has quite achieved. Having said that I would be neglecting my duties if I didn’t alert you to Barbirolli’s magnificent 1959 performance of La Mer with his beloved Hallé on top form. This is a more passionate reading than Ansermet’s but it is just as valid and the climaxes are broader and more terrifying than with the Swiss conductor. Despite its age the stereo sound (made by Pye) is first rate (EMI/Phoenixa CDM 7 63763–2 coupled with Ravel’s La Valse, Ma Mère l’Oye and the 2nd Suite from Daphnis et Chloë (with chorus) in superb performances). Also, I mustn’t forget Pierre Monteux’s accounts of the Prélude, Nocturnes and Images with the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca Eloquence 476 8472), nor his magnificent 1955 recording of the Nocturnes with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BVCC-37168 - coupled with Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony). Finally, although this doesn’t appeal to some, I do find that Pierre Boulez, whilst cool in his approach, manages to get it right more often than not and his interpretations of the major orchestral works is highly recommendable (Sony SM2K 68327). It’s interesting that whilst Barbirolli gives a full-bodied romantic account of the music and Boulez an analytical view, Ansermet somehow manages to steer a course between the two, bringing the different sides of Debussy’s character together.
If you only want one version of Debussy’s orchestral works, or can only afford one, then you will not be disappointed with these Ansermet disks for they are highly enjoyable and I am more than happy to welcome their return to the catalogue.

Bob Briggs
Happy to welcome their return … see Full Review