Claude DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)
Complete Orchestral Music Vol.5
La boîte à joujoux - orch. André Caplet. (1913) [32:44]
Six épigraphes antiques - orch. Ernest Ansermet (1914) [17:54]
Estampes No.1: Pagodes - orch. André Caplet (1903) [ 5:37]
Estampes No.2: La soireé dans Grenade - orch Paul-Henri Büsser (1903) [5:54]
L’isle joyeuse - orch. Bernardino Molinari (1904) [6:56]
Le triomphe de Bacchus - orch. and arr. Marius-François Gaillard (1882) [3:38]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France: 27-28 March 2009 (Pagodes); 11-14 January 2010 (La boîte, Six épigraphes, La soireé); 24-27 February 2010 (Le triomphe)
NAXOS 8.572568 [73:04]
With my shelves groaning with oceans of La Mers and a month-of-Sundays-worth of Nocturnes I have to admit that I had not rushed out to sample the series of orchestral works by Debussy from Jun Märkl and his Orchestre National de Lyon. Hence the series has reached volume five before I dip my toe. Most series of Debussy’s orchestral music seem to take about four well-filled discs, Naxos will certainly reach at least a sixth volume by adding to the usual body of works some lesser known orchestrations and juvenilia. Given that I included a set of similar orchestrations - Colin Matthews’ extraordinarily fine re-conceiving of the complete Piano Preludes - as one of my discs of the year, it is no surprise that my interest has been piqued by this volume.
Even the major work on this disc is a relative rarity. La boîte à joujoux has never captured popular imagination in the way many of Debussy’s other works have. It always comes as something of a surprise what a big work relatively it is. Although sub-divided into four tableaux framed by a prelude and an epilogue it plays for nearly thirty-three minutes continuously. This makes it longer than Jeux, La Mer, or Nocturnes, even the total of the three parts of the orchestral Images (which are five separate movements) is only just a little more. In recording terms it is not particularly rare, trawling back through the catalogue throws up several versions none of which seem to last too long before deletion. The exception is the early 1970s version by Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de I’O.R.T.F. which seems to have resurfaced in numerous guises over the decades and still sounds remarkably well. The problem, if problem it is, for this work is one of scale relative to content/narrative. Keith Anderson’s typically informative liner-note gives the most detailed synopsis of the ballet that I have read and while not vital at all to one’s enjoyment of the work it does allow the listener to follow the storyline in some detail, from the magical awakening of the toys through the courtship of the soldier and the doll to their ultimate ‘old age’. Debussy dedicated the work - as he had the earlier Children’s Corner Suite - to his daughter Emma-Claude nicknamed Chou-Chou. So there is no doubting the sincerity or pleasure he took in its creation however it has a knowing sophistication about it that is at odds with its intended child audience or child (apparently even marionette) performers. The other issue for some collectors will be is it ‘real’ Debussy. This is because it is a work in part orchestrated by André Caplet. Particularly with this work I think this is a spurious concern. Debussy wrote a complete piano score and commenced orchestrating it before an invitation to conduct in Russia took his attention. Caplet, a Prix de Rome winning composer in his own right, and log-term friend and collaborator with Debussy completed the task. I think the orchestration is a delight - the skill and sophistication of it clearly apparent in this new recording. If you can accept a Korngold film score as being extensively worked on by Hugo Friedhofer then there is nothing to dismiss here. The hardest thing for the conductor is to find the ideal blend of simplicity and sophistication as well as integrating the episodic nature of the score. I’m not sure that Debussy helps in this cause by the slightly knowing and arch references to other works whether its his own Golliwog’s Cakewalk or the Mendelssohn Wedding March or the Soldier’s Chorus from Gounod’s Faust amongst others. The cross-quotations would sail over the head of the intended audience and so are there just for the sake of cleverness.
As I said, this is my first encounter with Jun Märkl and his orchestra. Generally the impression is a very positive one. Technically the Lyon players are very assured with some beautifully refined woodwind solos in particular. Partly due to the chosen somewhat analytical recording and in part down to interpretation this comes across as a rather literal straight-faced performance lacking to a degree in charm. Not that that is a totally negative comment. The result is a version that sounds strikingly modern if not very child-like. Tim Handley’s engineering has opted for quite closely miked strings and wind with less front-to-back perspective than might be ideal. I suspect this is choice forced on the team by the recording venue of the Auditorium de Lyon which sounds like a barn. Behind the closely miked players there is a big wallowing resonance - the lower frequencies of the bass instruments and the big drum being notable ‘beneficiaries’ at climaxes. One oddity of the recording is that the important orchestral piano part and the percussion seem to sit slightly behind the rest of the orchestra. The registering of internal detail is excellent with Caplet’s orchestrational skill very apparent. In its own right this is a successful objective and valid version of the work. Returning to Martinon I would have to say that I find his performance to be more completely satisfying. Those old EMI/Salle Wagram performances have atmosphere and character in abundance although it is hard not to draw the conclusion that technically the Lyon players of 2010 are better equipped as a whole than their compatriots of nearly 30 years earlier. That being said there is an elegance to much of the earlier playing, an easy gallantry - I’m thinking here in particular of the extended cor anglais solos - that trumps the modern performance.
The next work on the disc is rarer still. Ernest Ansermet’s orchestration of the Six épigraphes antiques are pure delight. A cursory glance through the current catalogue produces a couple of other versions but none from other collections of complete orchestral works. Again the modernity of Debussy’s writing strikes home. The Chansons de Bilitis which provided the source material for the Six épigraphes antiques [1914for the four-hand original version]was written as early as 1900. Yes it can be argued that Ansermet’s orchestral treatment from 1939 seeks to underline this modernity from a perspective a quarter of a century after they were written yet at the same time this is a beautiful reworking of a gem of a work. For all the evocative titles Debussy gave the movements this is much more abstracted music than the preceding ballet. Because of that it seems more suited to Märkl’s slightly detached approach. Again the woodwind are beautifully refined and chaste and with less inherent drama and a narrower dynamic range the recording battles the hall acoustic less.
For the rest of the programme the orchestrations are more functional rather than revelatory which I feel the Ansermet is. There are interesting comparisons to be made. Geoffrey Simon on Cala recorded orchestral versions of the two Estampes which are more interventionist than the versions we have here which are much more along the lines of faux-Debussy. Simon chose Stokowski’s take on La soireé dans Grenade and the remarkable Percy Grainger’s extraordinary re-imagining of Pagodes. To be honest I like both approaches but I think in the context of a series such as this the choice to stick to styles more as-one with Debussy’s own orchestral palette was the right one. That being said Grainger makes you realise just what a radical Debussy was. All the more astounding when you consider that Pagodes dates from 1903 just six years after the death of Brahms. Although Caplet’s hands it sounds more like a novelty and less revolutionary I do like the way the cascading harp registers beautifully through a haze of string trills in the closing pages.
Less successful as a performance is Molinari’s treatment of L’isle joyeuse. Simon gave us the same version and to be honest is more athletically joyful. I cannot fault any aspect of the Lyon playing except that there is a fractional degree of calculation that I would happily trade for a smidgen more sensuous spontaneity. The disc closes with a reconstruction of the very early Le triomphe de Bacchus. The interest here is to map the creative path Debussy was on. Marius-François Gaillard’s orchestration is far less interesting than elsewhere on the disc - far more standard 19th Century with hints of Massenet and even Chabrier but I assume that is a fair reflection of Debussy’s work at that time. It’s a fairly anonymous ending to an interesting disc. Certainly this will encourage me to look forward to Volume Six and some more orchestrations but at the same time I am not sure that I have heard anything here that encourages me to visit to the earlier volumes in the expectation of displacing my pre-existing favoured versions in the standard Debussy repertoire. On the showing here I would say a good orchestra with Märkl a safe pair of hands but lacking the last degree of fantasy that can transform this already wonderful music into something extraordinary.
Lacking the last degree of fantasy that can transform this already wonderful music into something extraordinary.