Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Chamber Music With Winds
Fêtes (from Nocturnes, 1900, arr. Joachin Jousse) [6.17] 1
Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune (1894, arr. Gustave Samazeuilh) [9.36] 2
Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (1910) [7.58]3
Syrinx (1913, anonymous transcription for trumpet) [2.41] 4
Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) [14.34]5
Rhapsody for saxophone and piano (1911) [10.24]6
Syrinx (1913) [2.49]7
Sonata for cello and harp (1915, anonymous arrangement of Sonata for cello and piano) [11.48] 8
Danses sacrée et danses profanes (for harp and string orchestra, 1903, arr for string quintet) [9.11] 9
Eric Aubier (trumpet)14: Vincent Lucas (flute)257: Philippe Berrod (clarinet)3: Nicolas Prost (saxophone)6: Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp)589: Ludwig Quandt (cello)8: Lise Berthaud (viola)5: members of Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra9: pianos played by Pascal Gallet1, Emanuel Strosser2, Claire Déser3, Laurent Wagschal6
rec. 2010. Temple St-Marcel, Paris; March 2012, Studio Sequenza, Berlin; individual tracks not specified
INDÉSENS INDE 040 [78.13]
This decidedly peculiar collection of Debussy’s ‘chamber music for winds’ is clearly designed for the French market. The booklet notes are entirely in that language except for translations of the performer biographies, and these are in a decidedly unidiomatic English - we are delightfully told of Vincent Lucas that “acknowledged by his pairs, he is very solicited.” The notes on the music itself are in French only, but given the somewhat flowery nature of Elsa Siffert’s prose - she informs us breathlessly that in the Danse sacre et profane “l’on pense ici a la lyre d’Orphée,” which my schoolboy French translates as “we think here of the lyre of Orpheus”. The French is not devoid of misprints either; we are told in the booklet and on the back cover that Eric Aubier plays piano in Fêtes when he is clearly playing the trumpet. The biographies also twice seem to imply that Claudio Abbado was still the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010.
Debussy’s chamber music for wind instruments comprises at most five works: the Rhapsodies for clarinet and saxophone, the first of which is more familiar in the composer’s own orchestral version; the sonata for flute, viola and harp, the Petite pièce for clarinet and piano, not included here; and Syrinx for unaccompanied flute which was only published after the composer’s death. To make up the full length of a CD, therefore, it is necessary to make use of arrangements of other works. Three of the arrangements on this disc, we are told, are here receiving their world premières.
Two of these premières feature the trumpet of Aubier, and these are real - and not very welcome - curiosities. The CD opens with a transcription of Fêtes from the orchestral Nocturnes, presumably inspired by the idea of highlighting the solo passage for three muted trumpets which forms the middle section of that work. Reducing the three trumpets to a single solo instrument merely serves to highlight the basically trivial nature of the melody at this point - the lack of the supporting thirds reduces the atmosphere to a nullity. The trumpet interjections elsewhere are reduced to what becomes basically a piano transcription of the orchestral score and add absolutely nothing to the mix. The idea of performing Syrinx, written for solo flute, on the trumpet is simply absurd. The sultry tones of the flute lose all their magic when transferred to the more forthright instrument, and although Aubier manages to encompass the whole range of pitches the results cannot help but sound strenuous and unidiomatic. The writer of the French sleeve-notes seems to completely ignore the presence of this transcription on the disc, and one only wishes that the listener could do the same.
Nicolas Prost, a very capable flautist, brings the right sort of atmosphere to his performance of Syrinx, but this is rather a fast rendition which lacks the ideal sense of mystery. The transcription of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune might seem to be tailor-made for the flute solo at the beginning. Towards the end the flute part is reduced to a soloistic rendition of the accompaniment figurations from the orchestral score which acquire entirely the wrong sort of prominence vis-à-vis the orchestral material, reduced here to a rather stolid and backwardly placed piano. Prost fares better in the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, but here the balance between the three players causes problems. In the first two movements the flute dominates his partners, and his tone does not match well with the rather less emotionally involved viola of Lise Berthaud. In the final movement the balance suddenly shifts, with the other two instruments much more in parity with the flute.The opening entry of the suddenly louder harp comes as quite a shock.
The two Rhapsodies for clarinet and saxophone fare better.One cannot help but miss the orchestral accompaniments that Debussy provided for the clarinet, and that Roger-Ducasse provided for the saxophone. The piano part sounds very bare at the beginning of these pieces when compared with the support that is provided by strings in the fuller versions. The final two tracks on this CD feature no wind contributions at all. The Cello Sonata in a transcription for cello and harp (the third of the première recordings) fails to provide the contrast between players that Debussy’s original features. When the cello is playing pizzicato it becomes simply an extension of the harp sound, and does not stand out against the piano background at all.
The final track features a version of the Danses sacrées et profanes with Debussy’s parts for string orchestra replaced by a well-balanced string quintet drawn from members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This is definitely the best performance on this CD, but again concerns arise in relation to the balance. Passages where in the orchestral version the strings provide a halo around the harp acquire instead a more democratic balance in which the harp seems to shadow and accompany passages where the solo strings take the lead. The piece is played not on the chromatic harp for which Debussy wrote, but in a transcription for the standard concert harp. The French booklet notes do observe this fact, and attempt to justify it by quoting a letter of 1916 in which Debussy - while regretting the fact that the chromatic harp had failed to establish itself - noted that the standard concert harp with pedals was less “lourde”. The fact remains that Debussy could easily have altered the harp part in the Danses himself to make it playable by the pedal harp, and that he did not take the opportunity to do so. His 1916 letter revolved around the harp part in the Sonata, and there is little doubt that he still expected the Danses to be played on the chromatic harp with its increased tonal dexterity. In this context the performance by Marie-Claire Jamet employing the correct instrument on the complete Martinon set of Debussy orchestral music must remain a model.
For the rest, these performances are at every point comprehensively outclassed by rivals elsewhere. There does seem to be a surprising shortage of other collections exclusively featuring the Debussy wind music. The 1992 Chandos collection by the Athena Ensemble does not include the Saxophone Rhapsody in any guise although there would have been room for it on the CD. Particularly recommendable in this repertoire is the set featuring William Bennett on flute, James Campbell on clarinet and Simon Haram on saxophone in their collection of Debussy’s chamber music for winds. They also include the arrangement of the Saxophone Rhapsody for cor anglais (played superlatively by Nicholas Daniel) as well as the miniature Petite pièce for clarinet and piano omitted here. Their performance of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp is rich, lush and well-balanced, showing precisely what is missing in the performance under review. These performances are however only currently available on a Cala double CD which fills out the contents with a selection of Saint-Saëns’s chamber music for winds.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

These performances are at every point comprehensively outclassed by rivals elsewhere.