RECORD OF THE MONTH
Claude DEBUSSY (1906-1975)
Complete Orchestral Works
for track listing see end of review
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, various dates 2007-2011
NAXOS 8.509002 [9 CDs: 9:08.49]
When Jean Martinon recorded his famous set of Debussy’s complete orchestral music in the 1970s it ran to five LPs, subsequently re-mastered by EMI (review review) (latterly licensed to Brilliant Classics) onto four CDs. There have been a number of further ‘complete’ recordings since, but this is the first which runs to as many as nine CDs. This set is therefore more than comprehensive, including a considerable number of arrangements and orchestrations by Debussy’s friends and colleagues as well as many by more modern composers. It also includes two pieces of juvenilia which have only been prepared for performance more recently. This set of recordings is therefore important for its completeness alone, but it has other claims to our attention as well.
This review will look first at the recordings of pieces that were excluded from Martinon’s survey, or may not be readily available elsewhere. It is obviously impossible to undertake detailed comparisons of all the works included here with the vast array of alternative performances which are available, but an attempt will be made to deal with all the major pieces and some of the minor ones.
The first of the ‘novelties’ is the ‘symphonie’ based on sections of Debussy’s only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande by the Romanian-born Marius Constant. It consists of the orchestral segments of the score (the preludes and interludes from each act) linked together. The sequence which results makes a most satisfactory unitary work, even if its symphonic credentials are unclear. One cannot detect that Constant supplies any linking passages; but the excerpts flow seamlessly into one another, with a short pause after the violent conclusion of the Fourth Act. This is the longest single track on these CDs, and one may feel at times that the repetition of the Golaud and Mélisande themes becomes rather too repetitive without the dramatic scenes intervening. That said, the unity of mood is maintained, and the music itself is glorious. The performance here lacks the superbly plush sound that Karajan brought to this music in his complete recording of the opera, but it is nevertheless very beautifully played with a proper feeling for the atmosphere of the piece. This ‘symphonie’ should be much better known. It gives those who do not know the opera an excellent ‘sampler’ of the work.
The orchestrations of three of the Études by the modern Swiss composer Michael Jarrell are properly Debussy-esque in style and work well on orchestra with some delightful original percussion touches. One would never suspect that these are not original Debussy arrangements, and the final Pour les accords comes across brilliantly.
The short ballet movement Le triomphe de Bacchus is very early Debussy, and not really representative of the composer’s style. It could almost be by Delibes. The arrangement by Marius François-Gaillard is very upfront and brash. Despite some splendidly lively orchestral playing including some skirling oboe lines it remains unconvincing. If one did not know the composer, it would be impossible to guess. By comparison the rather dry orchestrations of this Six épigraphes antiques by Ernest Ansermet, tolerably well known if not included in the Martinon box, are given affectionate performances with some nicely shaded orchestral playing.
Robin Holloway’s orchestrations of En blanc et noir are something different again. He captures Debussy’s impressionist style perfectly, even though the opening sounds more idiomatic in its original guise for two pianos. On the other hand the slow second movement, taking its inspiration from the trenches of the First World War, comes over superbly in orchestral clothing. The stately piano chords transfer to violins in a totally appropriate style and the sombre mood of the music is reflected with just the right degree of solemnity here.
Gustav Cloëz’s treatment of three of the movements of the Suite bergamasque are used here to complement Caplet’s more familiar arrangement of Claire de lune; it is unclear when this orchestration was made, though it was evidently during Debussy’s lifetime. The styles of the two composers do not really match: Cloëz is more forthright and outgoing than the genuinely impressionist Caplet. (The booklet and CD cover lose the umlaut on Cloëz’s name.) The Caplet Claire de lune would be even more atmospheric if it were allowed to move at its own natural pace. Märkl not only takes it slightly too quickly, but then nudges it along in a manner which spoils its natural simplicity. The return of Cloëz’s more forthright style for the final Passepied comes as a bit of a jolt, too.
The style of Bernardino Molinari in his arrangement of L’isle joyeuse is much more like the real thing, perhaps more like Ravel than Debussy but at least in the right sort of stylistic ballpark. The orchestral playing here is superbly alert, and Märkl gets the pacing exactly right. Some of the scoring later recalls La mer, and quite rightly too. What sounds like ‘Bartók pizzicati’ at 2.26 surely carry orchestral technique a step too far – or is it just very sharp and dry plucking by the high violins?
Colin Matthews’s orchestrations of the Préludes can also be found on a two-CD set from the Hallé Orchestra’s own label (review), under the baton of Mark Elder who commissioned the arrangements. It is not possible in any review of a reasonable (or tolerable) length to compare these readings item by item. Suffice to say that these Lyon performances are excellent, fully the equal of the original Hallé recordings, and that the performances make an interesting contrast. The opening Danseuses de Delphes, for example, is more forthright than with Elder, without moving outside the correct impressionist style. Matthews’s careful arrangements strike just the right sort of note even when he is defeated by some of Debussy’s more blatantly pianist idioms. La sérénade interrompue is delightfully cheeky, and the final Feux d’artifice are given a stunningly virtuosic performance by the orchestra. One major advantage these recordings have over those with the Hallé is that Debussy’s original order for the Préludes is restored. In his initial reading Elder reorganised them. In his booklet interview with Jeremy Siepmann the conductor claims that “every note we present is by Debussy” – but in fact Colin Matthews has added some additional passages of his own in these arrangements, although they are perfectly in the correct Debussy style.
It is a shame that we could not have had Stokowski’s orchestration of La cathédrale engloutie for comparison. This piece is the one Prélude which gains most from orchestration. There is in particular a real problem at the beginning in the original piano version. The principal melody is stated against a background of a distantly tolling bell. This is perfectly clear in the piano score, but in performance the sound of the ‘bell’ obscures the melodic line and requires very careful handling by the pianist if it is to ‘come through’ – which it very rarely does successfully. In an orchestral version the variety of available colour makes it easy to differentiate the two elements. By comparison with the very lush and almost cinematic Stokowski, Matthews is colder and more distant but probably more genuinely Debussian in style. He avoids Stokowski’s over-insistent continuation of the bell sounds into the second page of the piano score. The orchestral violins take their stratospherically high fortissimo entry just before the climax with total aplomb. It would be nicer to have deeper bells to underpin the full orchestral statement of the chorale theme as well as at the end where the fast string figurations create exactly the right subterranean (or should that be submarine?) atmosphere.
The orchestrations of two of the Éstampes are most interesting. It is perhaps a pity that room could not also have been set aside for Percy Grainger’s fascinating orchestration of Pagodes for tuned percussion (review), which can be found on Rattle’s superb Grainger disc (review) as well as in Hickox’s Grainger Edition for Chandos (review). The treatment by Caplet is naturally less startling, but certainly more Debussian in style. Indeed the atmosphere he creates at the start is much more European than oriental, and indeed less exotic than Ravel was achieving in his Mother Goose suite written at much the same time. Büsser’s orchestration of La soirée dans Grenade is much more authentically Spanish in flavour, with the natural overtones of Falla that one would expect. Märkl gets the right sound, but a degree more freedom in phrasing might have been appropriate; the rhythms are just a shade too precise to be perfectly idiomatic.
The American composer and arranger Tony Finno is credited with the orchestration of Debussy’s early symphonic movement written for Tchaikovsky’s patron Nadezhda von Meck. He gives no details regarding his work on the score on his website and the booklet gives no indication of what work was needed to bring this piece of juvenilia from 1880 to a performable state. It is a most interesting work, and full of hints of the later composer to come. Other reviewers have detected a Russian influence, as might be expected from such a commission; but the Gallic overtones are much more apparent. Actually it is not at all a bad piece in its own right, and one can only regret that Debussy never completed his sketches for the remaining movements. All right, there are some pretty naïve passages of the sort that Debussy would never have countenanced in his later work. A peculiarly vulgar passage for trombone solo at 2.08 is a monstrosity – did Debussy really write this, or is it the work of the editor? The slow middle section brings some very Debussian melodic writing for the oboe, not very winningly played here – it could to advantage have been slower – but again one is left in some doubt as to whether this was the composer’s inexperience or the result of Finno’s scoring. There are some very characteristic impressionist touches in the score towards the end of this section, almost anticipating at one point L’après-midi d’un faune. The final section of the movement finds some very conventional string and brass material overlaid very uncomfortably over lower string writing that briefly hints at La mer. Nevertheless this is a worthwhile resurrection of a most interesting score.
At this point it is useful to turn again to the conductor’s interview with Jeremy Siepmann in the substantial insert booklet, in which he sets forth his approach to the music. He says: “I think one common misconception is that Debussy is primarily an Impressionist composer – that colour and atmosphere, and a certain vagueness, a certain fogginess, are more important than structure in his music. My impression is that the exact opposite is true … I would like this listener’s attention to be focused on the clarity of the structure, the clarity of the sound, so that they can clearly hear everything that’s happening, all the inner voices etc.” Well, up to a point. Conductors at least since Boulez in the 1970s have been preaching the need for clarity in Debussy, and one cannot argue with anyone who would suggest that the avoidance of ‘vagueness’ or ‘fogginess’ is desirable in this music. But one of the many things that Debussy learned from Wagner was the method of smudging the sound, the creation of atmosphere in sound in the same way that the impressionist painters created atmosphere through light; modern composers call it ‘texture’. To continue the analogy with painting, if you strip away too much of the accumulated varnish you stand in some considerable danger of stripping away also some of the paint, like an over-enthusiastic restorer. Boulez in some of his earlier Debussy recordings did precisely that; it is a pity that his Covent Garden recording of Pelléas loses much of the emotional intensity that he brought to his live performances in the opera house at the time. Märkl is not so iconoclastic, and even when he is at pains to emphasise the clarity of the writing especially in the strings - and there is some superlative playing from the orchestral strings - he always keeps the intentions of the composer’s images in his mind. Even so, there are occasions when one would wish for more atmosphere, more willingness to allow the light to shine through. One thinks of Pierre Monteux in his regrettably few Debussy recordings, who allows for more warmth even when he is taking pains to ensure that Debussy’s actual notes (including the essential inner voices) are clearly audible.
Turning now therefore to the more familiar works, the performance of L’après-midi d’un faune which opens the first disc is an absolute stunner. It immediately arrests the listener with the very slow and languorous flute solo and the crystal limpidity of the orchestral response. The piece is thoroughly re-imagined and approached with a freshness which is as delightful as it is unexpected. The modernity of the writing which so startled first audiences is brought vividly to life, but there is no element here of novelty of approach for its own sake - everything that we hear is just what the composer put into his innovatory score, and nothing is obscured. The orchestral phrasing is lovely, and one’s only criticism might be that the quiet strokes of the antique cymbals at the end are so quiet as to be inaudible - but better that than unnaturally forward. This is an unconventional performance, but thoroughly convincing; one is not surprised to read that Märkl studied initially with Celibidache. It is rare indeed that a new recording of a very well-known masterpiece makes the listener sit up and say “yes, that’s it!” – but that is exactly the effect this performance had on this reviewer. On the other hand, David Hurwitz on Classics Today hated it and called it “the worst performance to appear for many, many years.” It’s certainly different.
The performance of La mer also starts slowly and atmospherically, but soon gathers momentum – perhaps a bit too much of it a bit too soon. The recording again enables one to hear everything. Debussy’s often unconventional orchestration comes across superbly. The notorious passage for sixteen divided cellos in the first movement is clearly not given by the massive string forces Debussy specified and presumably had in mind (is it ever?), but it is clearly and precisely delivered. The Jeux de vagues is like crystal, with unexpectedly touches of delicacy; but this is one of the points where the rushing string phrases could perhaps be less clear to advantage. The impressionist touches are very precise, like over-careful brush-strokes. However there is no want of air around the sound, and the harp towards the end is distanced to perfection. In the final movement the trumpet passages which Debussy afterwards deleted - and then re-instated; his final intentions are unclear - are included; the music sounds much better with them.
Jeux is given an ultra-clear performance which reminds one of a super-precise Boulez. The orchestral performance here is intensely alive and responsive. Again Märkl is sometimes a little on the slow side, but the music can take it and one can certainly hear every detail. The reading of Caplet’s orchestration of Children’s Corner is full of delightful touches, with a superbly somnolent performance of Jimbo’s lullaby, although the snowflakes dance very sedately; but the golliwog prances his way through his cakewalk with panache.
The performance of the Nocturnes is gloriously atmospheric. Nuages has a properly amorphous sound, with some admirable phrasing in the opening phrases which could to advantage be even slower; but the flute solo towards the end is given plenty of time to breathe and expand. Fêtes explodes with some wonderfully vital playing and the recording exposes every detail analytically, like a newly cleaned painting. The distant trumpets in the middle section could be rather more ethereal and distant, and the same could be said for the chorus in Sirènes. Incidentally the booklet misattributes their contribution to the following track; this is corrected in the listing below.
Any performance of the Images has to be measured against Monteux’s incomparable reading from the early 1960s (review), but Märkl is most certainly not an also-ran. The opening of Gigues is less impressionistically atmospheric than Monteux, but it has plenty of spirit and verve as well as a nice line in rubato. Ibéria sparkles delightfully, with explosive castanets, and the trombones at the end which are rather muffled under Monteux come through nicely here. The Rondes du printemps have a nice line, but are perhaps a little hectic at the beginning and a little too steady (if not staid) later.
The performance of Ravel’s orchestration of the Sarabande is surely too brisk at the start; a slower speed would better capture the antique grace of this stately dance. It steadies down after a little, but the opening speed spoils the overall effect. The horn at the start of the Danse sounds a little awkward - and rather backward thereafter. The repeated rhythms on muted trumpets sound slightly uncomfortable but this is incredibly difficult writing for the instruments in what in an orchestral tour de force.
The solo cimbalom player in La plus que lent is not credited, which is surely an injustice to his nicely graduated playing with just the right touch of sly humour. A degree more schmaltz from the strings might not have come amiss, but they get the right air of insouciance.
The symphonic fragments from Le martyre de Saint Sébastien have the correctly distant air at the beginning, but again could ideally be a trifle slower to allow the harmonically unrelated parallel chords to make their full effect. On the other hand the treatment of Le bon pasteur is gorgeous, allowing the music to breathe naturally and the response by the strings to the opening cor anglais give just the right sort of frisson. This is stunningly beautiful music which is still too little appreciated; one still remembers the old mono recording with Charles Munch declaiming the saint’s lines during the melodrama in a frail and elderly voice; entirely the wrong sort of sound for the glamorous saint, but oh so expressive. This performance enables one to appreciate Debussy’s subtle response to d’Annunzio’s transcendentally tacky - but somehow also transcendentally moving - text without having any of the detail obscured by spoken dialogue. The crescendo leading to the gong strokes at the end is overwhelming. It is nice to have the usual movements extended by the prelude to La chambre magique, another superbly atmospheric piece; but the two fanfares are an unnecessary addition.
The final CD of the set brings together Debussy’s various concertante works, and in the early Fantaisie the pianist is Jean-Yves Thibaudet, no less. He gives a heartfelt performance of this piece of juvenilia - incorporating Debussy’s later changes to the score from the revised 1968 edition - which almost persuades one that the work would have received as many performances if it had been by another composer. Märkl and the orchestra support him with just the right sort of generalised romantic sound. The other works on this disc are mature Debussy, and are given good readings here.
The Danses were written not for the standard concert double-action harp we know, but for a chromatic harp devised by Pleyel in the early twentieth century. It was able to cope with much more chromatic music than its predecessor but had a fatal flaw in that the harp could no longer play glissandi which after all had become one of the standard pieces of its stock-in-trade. The instrument accordingly failed to establish itself, and Debussy’s pieces were adapted so that they could be played on the double-action harp in which form they have become standard repertoire. Martinon in his set had the advantage of a player who could still play the chromatic harp, but this recording uses the standard concert instrument of today, with the need to make some alterations to the original score. There are still a few players around who can play the Pleyel instrument, and it would have been nice to make use of one of them here, although Ceysson does fine and is unfazed by the chromatic style of the writing even if he at times sounds a little recessed in the sound-picture.
Incidentally, given the comprehensive nature of this enterprise, it would be nice to have been given Debussy’s two orchestrations of the Satie Gymnopédies. These are readily available elsewhere, but Debussy’s own instrumental technique (including the added percussion) in his Satie arrangements give a valuable clue to his orchestral style which would make a nice comparison with the many arrangements by other hands included here.
Any recording of this music has some almost unbeatable competition to cope with. The performances of the major works in this set do not, and could not, challenge the best available elsewhere - although the performance of L’après-midi is a controversial must-hear. The rarities which are included are most invaluable and make this collection highly desirable. The substantial booklet is a mine of information, although it does not give the dates for quite a few of the arrangements; some of these, when they can be ascertained, are supplied in the listing below.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Important for its completeness but it has other claims to our attention as well.
Dates given are those of completion of orchestral composition (for original works) or arrangement (where known). I have been unable to locate dates for some of the arrangements even after extensive research.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [10.12]
La mer (1905) [24.53]
Jeux (1913) [19.25]
Children’s Corner orch. André Caplet (1911) [18.36]
Pelléas et Mélisande: Symphonie arr. Marius Constant [25.05]
Nocturnes (1900) (with MDR Radio Choir, Leipzig) [25.26]
Berçeuse heroïque (1915) [4.56]
Études Nos. 9, 10 and 12 orch. Michael Jarrell (1991) [13.31]
Images (1912) [25.05]
Sarabande from Pour le piano orch. Maurice Ravel (1923) [4.32]
Danse orch. Ravel (1923) [5.28]
Marche écossaise (1908) [6.19]
La plus que lent (1912) [6.05]
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien: Fragments symphoniques and other excerpts (1911) [29.13]
Khamma orch. Charles Koechlin (1918) [21.59]
Le roi Lear orch. Jean Roger-Ducasse (1905) [4.24]
L’enfant prodigue: Cortège et air de danse (1908) [4.59]
La boîte à joujoux orch. Debussy and Caplet (1919) [32.44]
Le triomphe de Bacchus arr. and orch. Marius-François Gaillard (1928) [3.35]
Six épigraphes antiques orch. Ernest Ansermet (1932) [17.54]
En blanc et noir orch. Robin Holloway (2002) [17.35]
Petite Suite orch. Henri Büsser (1907) [13.05]
Suite bergamasque orch. Caplet, Gustave Cloëz (1968) [16.57]
L’isle joyeuse orch. Bernardino Molinari (1923) [6.59]
Préludes, Book I orch. Colin Matthews (2007) [43.05]
Printemps orch. Büsser (1912) [15.20]
Préludes, Book II orch. Matthews (2007) [42.12]
Estampes: Pagodes orch. Caplet (1923) [5.38]
Estampes: La soirée dans Granade orch. Büsser [5.53]
Symphony in B minor orch. Tony Finno [11.22]
Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1890) (Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano) [26.21]
Clarinet Rhapsody (1911) (Paul Meyer, clarinet) [7.36]
Saxophone Rhapsody orch. Roger-Ducasse (1919) (Alexandre Doisy, saxophone) [10.00]
Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) (Emmanuel Ceysson, harp) [9.13]