Claude DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)
Complete Orchestral Music - Vol.6
Suite bergamasque - orch. Gustave Cloez and André Caplet. (1890-1905) [16:57]
Petite Suite - orch. Paul-Henri Büsser (1889) [13:02]
Printemps - orch. Paul-Henri Büsser (1887) [15:18]
En blanc et noir - orch. Robin Holloway (1915) [17:32]
Symphony in B minor - orch. Tony Finno (1880) [11:15]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon France, 11-14 January 2010 (Petite Suite); 24-27 February 2010 (remainder)
NAXOS 8.572583 [74:21]
This is the sixth - and one presumes final - volume in the Naxos traversal of Debussy’s orchestral works. But as with volume five, saying these are Debussy’s orchestral works is a tad misleading. All of the pieces here have been orchestrated by other hands. For me that is the interest in these two volumes, for others I imagine the complete reverse might be so. Clearly Jun Märkl and his Orchestre National de Lyon had a series of very intense orchestral sessions which the Naxos programme planners have then rather cleverly combined to make discs mixing the familiar with the less well known. And so it proves here with the ‘pops’ Clair de lune rubbing shoulders with much more austere En blanc et noir.
I find my overall reaction to this disc strikingly similar to the previous volume. Some performances are significantly more successful than others. I find Märkl to be a competent but far from inspiring guide to Debussy’s sound-world - clearly other reviewers have felt very different from the quotes given on the back cover - and his orchestra to be good but somehow rather prosaic for much of the time. My biggest nagging concern though is the recording. Tim Handley has produced many exceptionally fine discs so I am certain that it is the recording location that causes the problems here. Handley has had to opt for a very close miking that produces spotlighting more familiar from the days of Melodiya or Phase4. The keys on the cor anglais in particular clatter away merrily and it seems downright odd to be able to hear the principal flute breathing quite so clearly within an orchestral tutti. The upside is that a student of orchestration can hear, in a very nuts and bolts fashion, the way these pieces have been put together - the individual lines laid clinically bare. But then, when a piece ends climactically you can hear the big cavernous resonance ‘behind’ the orchestra. This resonance does not help give the playing a warmth, instead at times the strings - especially when playing above the stave - have a glassiness that detracts from the lyrical beauty implicit in much of the music. The Petite Suite was recorded at earlier sessions than the rest of the programme and suffers worst - I don’t know whether Handley slightly adjusted the rig for the later sessions but there is an improvement in the other works but this remains far from being a demonstration disc.
My greater problem is with Märkl’s interpretative approach. In volume 5 I put this down to a kind of modernist detachment which focused on the forwarding-looking elements in the scores. That might indeed be valid for the later scores - indeed it works well here in En blanc et noir but the late romantic/early impressionist Suite bergamasque and Petite Suite sound simply bored and boring. Since these are the two works to open the disc it is quite a downer. I am really quite shocked that the ebb and flow so implicit in this gorgeous music can be ironed out into something quite so flat - in every sense except pitch! I see that a different performance (from 2008) of Clair de lune in the same André Caplet orchestration was included in volume 2 of this series but I have not heard that. The other movements of this suite were orchestrated by Gustave Cloez. About him I know nothing at all - even note-writer Keith Anderson is less informative than usual - except that he recorded as conductor many operatic 78s accompanying such famous names as Lily Pons and Conchita Supervia. Given he was born in 1890 it seems safe to assume this version of the Debussy suite was arranged after the composer’s death without his assistance. The effect is one of functionality rather than insight. Alongside the Caplet it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Cloez’s skills as an orchestrator were workmanlike. Henri Büsser has more claim to be arranging/orchestrating with the composer’s imprimatur. As with La boîte à joujoux on volume 5 Büsser worked under the supervision and therefore implicit approval of the composer on both the Petite Suite and Printemps. The suite receives another performance quite lacking in fantasy or imagination. Of the ‘standard’ orchestrations this has often been included in other conductors’ surveys of Debussy orchestral works and I would direct collectors to any other version before this. Printemps is the more important in many ways as an orchestration because it restored an early work (1887), originally for female chorus and orchestra, the score of which was destroyed in a printer’s fire. Fortunately, from this point on in the programme things take a marked turn for the better. Printemps is not rare in the greater recorded scheme of things and it receives a far from subtle performance here. At least the level of engagement from the stick is significantly higher. Here is where I first noticed a subtle change in the instrumental balance to which the strings in particular are better integrated into the overall orchestral sound. For a work whose original predates both the piano suites above this sounds more questingly modern. For sure Debussy did not manage to achieve the formal balance of later works but it is fascinating to hear how far he had moved from the ‘traditional’ symphonic approach of the 1880 Symphony towards the radical departure of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune of 1894. I suppose one query is; did Debussy direct Büsser to orchestrate it in his 1887 or 1912 style?
The piece I enjoyed most by far on this disc is Robin Holloway’s 2002 orchestration of the 1915 En blanc e noir. The austerity of the two piano original marks both Debussy’s progression as a composer and his worsening physical and emotional state. Much as I admired Colin Matthews’ re-imagining of the complete Piano Preludes from the standpoint of the 21st Century I like the way Holloway has deliberately moved away from simply trying to evoke a Debussyian orchestral sound-world. As with the Matthews this seeks to emphasise the modernist elements in Debussy’s music and the result is something that is more than a respectful reworking which to be honest is what the Büsser and Caplet et al works are. Clearly this appeals to Märkl much more too and the increase in engagement and dynamism is palpable. Here is the rubato so missing from the previous sleepwalking humdrum routine. Also, the upfront detail of the recording serves the style of Holloway’s approach better than the hazy world of Büsser. Holloway flecks out the orchestration with glittering harp and glockenspiel and fascinating instrumental combinations. He is less concerned with creating a homogeneous whole preferring a robust and muscular orchestration where the instrumental groups compete for the musical material. The result is radically different from how I ever imagined this piece to be. This is exactly the kind of orchestration that I enjoy most - by translating a familiar work into unfamiliar territory new and revealing light is thrown on it. This is particularly true of the second movement Lent. Sombre [track 12] which becomes an intensely moving threnody to a friend killed on the battlefields of France in 1915. Over a glowering landscape interrupted my Messiaen-like ritualistic bells a lone bugle signals some kind of last post - you cannot help but wonder if Holloway was inspired by Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony here in spirit if not content. By a considerable distance this is the finest part of the disc with the Lyon players responding with playing of rapt beauty. Again Märkl handles the transition to the central section of marching bombast with much more conviction and success than earlier before the music subsides once more into the morning mists of the opening before the final rhetorical climax. Holloway manages to create much more of a miniature tone-poem here than the original implies - it will be down to individual listeners if they respond to the musical/emotional signposts he evokes. Personally I think they are superb and utterly convincing. Likewise the slippery and sly final Scherzando. Here Holloway adds some Bartók pizzicati amongst other orchestral effects which in an instant takes us way beyond any ‘authentic’ Debussy sound. Perhaps he was picking up on the faint mockery in Debussy’s dedication of the movement to Stravinsky. Certainly the sounds he creates here echo the Russian composer at points. But then he returns to the spirit of Debussy and the work evaporates into the air with an indifferent shrug of its musical shoulders. I do hope this work gets to be heard more often in concert and on disc - for all my negative comments elsewhere so fine is this arrangement/reconception - call it what you will - and the performance I would be tempted to recommend the disc on the strength of this alone.
The closing work is worth consideration too. I had never heard a note of this incomplete Symphony before. Debussy wrote this single first movement for an abortive four movement work in 1880 but never orchestrated it beyond the piano duet original. The American composer Tony Finno - whose website makes no mention of the piece or the date of his version - has done an orchestration mainly in the style of early Debussy. In this instance I am sure that was the right decision although I do find his apparent use of chromatic timp lines [track 14 0:50] simply odd. This is no undiscovered masterpiece; the fascination lies wholly in what developed afterwards. But for the admirer of Debussy’s music the interest is undeniable. Knowing what followed it is not hard to hear that the swooning romanticism of this piece would be a dead end. That being said the central Un poco lento, cantabile is an appealing salonesque confection which Finno has orchestrated with deft taste. There are echoes of Gounod here in Faust mode that I don’t think I had ever associated with Debussy before so that is interesting in itself. I have no comparable version of this piece and since it is not touched by greatness it is probably unfair to expect the performance to be more than the piece will allow.
No doubt collectors five discs into this series won’t need to read this review to make up their minds but little of the performance side of things here encourages me to race out to hear more from this team. For others, with the Naxos price advantage, I would say this is a disc worthy of consideration in the main for the brilliance of the Robin Holloway orchestration and the curiosity value of the early Symphony.
Reviews of other releases in this series
Collectors five discs into this series won’t need to read this review to make up their minds.