Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Danse sacrée and Danse profane, for harp and strings (1904) [9:47]
Syrinx, for solo flute (1913) [2:56]
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915) [11:06]
Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915) [18:69]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917) [13:39]
Rhapsody No. 1 for clarinet and piano (1910) [8:04]
Fabrice Pierre (harp); Jérôme Pernoo (cello); Elisabeth Rigollet (piano); Jean-Louis Beaumadier (flute); Pierre-Henri Xuereb (viola); Annick Roussin (violin); Guy Dangain (clarinet); Ensemble Orchestral La Follia
INDESENS INDE042 [65:16]
This disc contains very fine performances indeed of Debussy’s late sonatas, but technical faults render it impossible to recommend without serious reservations. Two seconds of “dead” silence have been inserted at two separate points between movements that are meant to be linked, between the two “Danses” for harp and strings and, less troubling, between the middle and final movements of the Cello Sonata. As to the booklet, apart from the odd translated word or phrase here and there, its contents are accessible only to those who read French. Recording details are not given, but the Indésens website tells us that the sessions took place in 1997. (Most of the performers were at or near the beginning of their careers when the disc was originally issued on the Calliope label.) The “Danses” are accompanied by the string ensemble La Follia, but no conductor is named. On the other hand, a second pianist, Jean Koerner, appears in the list of performers, but with no indication of the pieces in which he plays. His name does not appear in the disc details on the Indésens website, but YouTube carries a recording of him playing the Debussy Rhapsody, with Guy Dangain, the clarinettist on this disc, apparently recorded in 1981. It is a great pity that such fine performances are carried on a product so carelessly prepared.
The three sonatas were all composed in the final years of Debussy’s life - the Violin Sonata was his last completed work - and were part of a projected set of six left unfinished at the composer’s death. The Cello Sonata receives an excellent performance here. Jérôme Pernoo is a fine cellist with a nice singing tone and plenty of technical skill at his command. It would be idle to pretend that he has the commanding presence of Rostropovich, lacking something of the intensity and imagination of that astonishing player. I think we can be pretty sure that he is accompanied by Elizabeth Rigollet, and she is very accomplished indeed, but she cannot rival the extraordinary insight of Benjamin Britten in that same legendary Decca performance. The present reading is perfectly satisfying on its own terms, however, though it is a pity that the cellist’s efforts are too often scuppered by an unfavourable balance between the two instruments, a problem particularly troublesome in the finale.
The performance of the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp is one of the finest I have heard. The players choose a dangerously slow principal tempo for the first movement, but such is their concentration that it is brilliantly sustained. They are scrupulous in their respect of the composer’s markings, with nothing added, no attempt to make more - or less - of the music than it is. Is there any music more fragile than this? “Musicien Français” Debussy proudly proclaimed on the title page of these sonatas, and the combination of fragility - which has nothing to do with weakness - and indefinable Frenchness is exactly what comes out in this performance. The recording is very close, so close that it might have been difficult for the players to create the right atmosphere of intimacy, whereas, in fact, they triumph.
The performance of the Violin Sonata is just as satisfying. There is a certain robustness about this work, even some high spirits, that set it apart from the other two, but there is an underlying melancholy too. (Elsa Siffert’s reference, in her booklet essay, to Shostakovich, of all people, is puzzling.) It is tempting to hear a valedictory mood in all three of these works, but only the sonata for violin was composed after it became clear that Debussy would not recover from the cancer from which he was suffering. His last appearance in public was to accompany Gaston Poulet in a performance of this work. It is, perhaps, not quite so unified as the other two sonatas, with not quite the same clarity of vision, but this is to make judgement on an astonishing masterpiece, as all three are without doubt amongst the finest works the composer produced, the purity of his art distilled to perfection. Again, these performers have perfectly understood and assimilated both the letter and the spirit of the work.
Since my student days I have frequently returned, and always with the greatest pleasure, to a series of French performances of these masterpieces on Philips, with Grumiaux and Gendron in the violin and cello works. I never expected to hear performances that rivalled them, but these performances by a later generation of French musicians can be recommended wholeheartedly. The rest of the programme is minor Debussy, but minor Debussy is major almost anybody else, and the performances of these other works are fully worthy of their astonishing composer.
Outstanding performances seriously marred by inferior technical presentation.