Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Nocturnes [24:17] (1), La Mer [22:07] (2), Petite Suite (orch. Henri Büsser) [13:33] (3)
Chœur de l’Opéra de Paris (1), Orchestre des Cento Soli (1, 2), Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française (3)/Louis Fourestier (1, 2), Henri Büsser (3)
rec. 1955 (1, 2), 17 October 1952 (3)
Forgotten records and, even more than that, forgotten conductors. Of the two, the name of Henri Büsser (1872-1973) has remained alive, if not for his conducting, at least for his orchestrations of Debussy’s “Printemps” and “Petite Suite”, which he directs here. Born in Toulouse, Büsser studied in Paris with Franck and Guiraud. He also received advice, and a recommendation for his first job as organist, from Gounod. He won the Prix de Rome in 1893. At Debussy’s request he took over the podium for the fourth and several subsequent performances of “Pelléas et Melisande”. Some sources suggest that Debussy was critical of his conducting. Nevertheless the two became friends. Debussy helped Büsser in the composition of the latter’s opera “Colomba” (1902-10 but not performed until after Debussy’s death). In 1907 he entrusted him with the orchestration of his own “Petite Suite”, originally written for piano duet in the early 1890s. Büsser taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1921 to 1948.
Büsser may seem to belong to recent history – no doubt some French readers of no more than middle age can recall the celebrations of his hundredth birthday in 1972. So it’s important to bear in mind that he was only ten years younger than Debussy and three years older than Ravel. He outlived not only the impressionists but most of the post-impressionists – Roussel, Poulenc – as well. Nevertheless, by training and background – a pupil of Franck, protégé of Gounod and friend of Massenet as well as Debussy – he really belongs to the generation before Debussy. If Debussy was doubtful over some aspects of his conducting such as a radical work of “Pelléas”, this probably reflects a general difficulty Debussy had in finding interpreters able to cope with his more revolutionary tendencies. It need not surprise us that, of Büsser’s not very numerous recordings, the most celebrated is his fairly complete version of Gounod’s “Faust” (1930).
All this is important since it means we have here, in very decent 1952 sound, a testimony to how Debussy’s music was originally interpreted by musicians not yet attuned to his refined, impressionist textures or to the allusiveness of his musical language. The suite is played rather as a cousin to Bizet’s “L’Arlésienne” music, in strong primary colours, well-sprung rhythms and an unashamedly strong contribution from the percussion. In truth, since this is early Debussy, there may not be a lot of point in trying to coax an impressionistic wash from the score, so we may take this version under Debussy’s chosen arranger as pretty well definitive. It is a pity we can’t hear what on earth Büsser might have made of a piece like “Jeux” – I take it Forgotten Records would have given us more if it existed.
Possibly the performances here under Louis Fourestier (1892-1876) are not so different from the ones Büsser might have given. Fourestier, too, though twenty years younger, had his roots in the more conservative generation. Born in Montpellier, he studied in Paris with D’Indy and Guilmant. He won the Prix de Rome in 1925 and first appeared as a conductor in 1927. He conducted at the Paris Opera from 1938 to 1965 and taught conducting at the Paris Conservatoire from 1945 to 1963. Louis Frémaux was one of his pupils. He conducted a few productions at the Metropolitan Opera shortly after the war but his career was essentially home-based. Fourestier recorded some shorter pieces for EMI-Pathé in the 1950s but our knowledge of his work derives mostly from three LPs he set down for Le Club Français du Disque, embracing some of the major masterpieces of the French orchestral repertoire – the present Debussy Coupling, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and Franck’s Symphony and Symphonic Variations (with Jean Micault).
All these were made with the Orchestre des Cento Soli, a mysterious band which appeared regularly on Club Français discs, under an array of conductors including Argenta, Paray and Wand. Only recently I queried the existence of another orchestra known almost exclusively through recordings – the Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra– only to discover that it was real after all. So I will be cautious. However, Paris in those years was a great place for non-existent orchestras that made records. Neither the “Orchestre de la Société Philharmonique de Paris” which set down the Franck Symphony under Désormière in 1951, nor the “Paris Philharmonic Orchestra” which repeatedly appeared in the studios under Leibowitz, have been satisfactorily identified. I suspect that, whatever they were, the Orchestre des Cento Soli was more of the same. A commentator on another of their records has noted that the orchestra does not sound especially like a French orchestra of the 1950s. It is true that the wind chords at the opening of “Nuages” have tangy reeds but not the warbling vibrato we associate with French orchestral playing of the day. However, the presence of the Paris Opera Chorus seems to scotch any idea that the record was not made in Paris or France at all. Maybe Fourestier just told them not to overdo the vibrato. After all, the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra playing Prokofiev under Boult sounds almost interchangeable with the London Philharmonic playing the same composer under the same conductor, so French wind players could clearly set aside their vibrato if asked.
Though a little more recent than the Petite Suite, which was originally on HMV/Pathé, the Club Français recordings are actually more congested and with limited dynamic range. There is distortion on the voices in “Sirènes”. I found it helped to play “Nuages” with the volume slightly lower than usual, and then to put it slightly higher than usual for “Fêtes”. Whatever you do, you’ll be surprised when the sirens begin to sing, not in the misty distance but right up close, in front of the orchestra. And they sing, moreover, with a gusty fervour worthy of a Franckian oratorio.
I think, though, that Fourestier was not in any case one for half-lit atmospheres. When the second movement of “La Mer” actually finishes with something like a piano the secret is out – there hasn’t been a lot of quiet playing until then anyway, it’s not just the recording. The recording also doesn’t investigate orchestral detail too closely in the fuller textures, and maybe we shouldn’t either. With brisk tempi and a generalized rhythmic swing there’s a suspicion we are getting just the outlines. And yet there’s a wholeheartedness to it all. The “Nuages” are more romantic than evanescent, everybody seems to be having a good time in “Fêtes” and the closeness of the sirens only exaggerates an interpretation that has a passionate surge in any case. It’s remarkable how like Franck this music can sound if you play it that way.
In “La mer” I wondered if Fourestier might not have been happier playing sea music by Bridge or even Britten. It’s a surprisingly angry, active North Sea right from the beginning. The divided cello theme exudes salty spray. The effect of the sunrise at the end of the first movement is somewhat weakened by the fact that the music has so often been equally loud already. The waves foam and surge rather than play and the big theme in the finale that sounds like Franck no matter who is conducting is given a full head of steam. It is an exciting but one-sided view.
So what sort of a recommendation does this add up to? If I say I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t got at least twenty other versions, you may think I’m not recommending it at all. If you’re of the fraternity that can’t understand why anyone should buy twenty performances of the same work, and then go out and get a twenty-first, then this is not for you. Unless, maybe, you get bored with the ultra-refinement of many Debussy performances and fancy hearing him played in the style of Richard Strauss.
If, on the other hand, you are fascinated by what are – “La mer” especially – towering masterpieces of the early twentieth century and are prepared to hear all the versions you can get provided each one adds something to your experience, then I think this one has a place. It may let us reflect that the ultra-refined pointillist texture we hear extracted from this music by Karajan, Boulez and Celibidache in their various ways was something Debussy himself never heard. Did he hope such performances might be achieved one day? Possibly yes, and this would explain his alleged dissatisfaction with Büsser’s “Pelléas”. The best he could hope to hear in his own day was something like Fourestier. Plenty of enthusiasm from a conductor versed in an older type of music and who interpreted Debussy as a sort of modernized Franck. But in seeking ultra-refinement, have we lost something? Performances like these may let us reflect on where Debussy interpretation began and where it has arrived. And in any case, if you’re a Debussy fan you will need to hear the “Petite Suite” played under the man Debussy chose to orchestrate it.
Christopher Howell
Performances that reflect changing styles in Debussy interpretation. Debussy fans will also need to hear the “Petite Suite” played under the man Debussy chose to orchestrate it.