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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Symphonie (1880) [9.54]
Andante cantabile (1880) [8.31]
Diane: Overture (1881) [6.51]
Le triomphe de Bacchus (1882) [12.51]
Intermezzo (1882) [4.29]
Première Suite d’orchestre (1883) [27.54]*
Divertissement (1884) [11.56]
L’enfante prodigue (1884): Prélude, Cortège and Air de danse [6.47]
Printemps: suite symphonique (1887) [18.04]
Petite Suite (1889) [13.46]
Marche écossaise (1891) [7.29]
Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [10.26]
Lindaraja (1901) [6.15]*
La mer (1903) [24.27]
Danse sacré et danse profane (1904) [10.05]*
Six épigraphes antiques (1914) [16.12]
En blanc et noir (1915) [16.43]*
Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti, piano (four hands) and two pianos*
rec. Studio La Musica, Carrara, Italy, 2-4 June and 5-6 October 2012
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94448 [3 CDs: 70.47 + 68.48 + 74.27] 

This set proclaims itself on the internet as the “only complete recording of all the works written by Debussy for piano duet and piano four hands”. It is most certainly that. Most discs of Debussy works for two pianists extend to no more than one CD, including usually the Petite Suite, En blanc et noir, Lindaraja, the Six epigraphes antiques and the Marche ecossaise, sometimes varying the diet slightly with one or another of Debussy’s earlier works or transcriptions. This set extends to three very full CDs, and when I first opened the box my initial impression was that we would have a considerable number of transcriptions by other hands. Not a bit of it; all the music on these discs was indeed written by Debussy for two pianists or arranged by him for that combination, sometimes with the intention of expanding the works at a later date for full orchestra, sometimes not. There are some real rarities here.
 
The pianists, both extremely good technicians, sometimes rush the music rather too much for my taste especially in the transcriptions of works like the opening movement of La mer for piano duet. One could contend that the piano, with its limited sustaining capacity, requires that the music be taken at a faster pace. I would treat this argument sceptically; the use of the piano sustaining pedal, and the listener’s memories of the orchestral score, would well survive a slower treatment of the score, as indeed we are given with the transcription of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. However what would have helped even more would be a more resonant acoustic. A photograph of the two pianists in the booklet show them placed side by side on two pianos which seems to push them back against the walls of what one presumes is the recording studio. The sound would seem to confirm this suspicion, since there is almost no resonance such as one would expect in a concert hall, just the sense of two pianists and their instruments in a very confined space. The sound does not overload or become clangourous, but it does feel very cramped indeed.
 
The real value of this set lies not in the orchestral transcriptions but in the early rarities included on the first one-and-a-half discs - the works are presented, logically, in chronological order. The set begins with Debussy’s early attempt at a Symphony, written for Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck. I reviewed an orchestral arrangement of this score by Tony Finno issued last year as part of Jun Märkl’s box of the complete Debussy orchestral music; that performance was over a minute slower, but the music - which sounds only intermittently like mature Debussy - works well at the speed here, even though once again the sound of the piano duet is somewhat too closely observed. Märkl’s performance gave us only the opening Allegro of the symphony. The performance here confirms my suspicions voiced in my original review that it was Finno’s orchestration which was responsible for some of the vulgarities I detected in the score. Here we also have the charming Andante cantabile which may have been intended as the second movement of the incomplete work.
 
One movement of the ballet score Le triomphe de Bacchus was also included in the Märkl box, but here we have considerably more of the music - another eight minutes including some inconsequential fragments. All this serves only to confirm my earlier observations that here we find Debussy almost imitating Delibes, although the later fragments show more signs of individuality. Before this we have heard the overture to Diane about which we are given no information whatsoever; it was written for an unfinished scène lyrique, and was only discovered nearly a century after its composition. It is a jolly piece, but has no discernible evidence of the mature composer.
 
The first disc concludes with a brief Intermezzo and the Première Suite d’orchestre, about which again the booklet notes are silent. Both were originally intended for orchestra, but if complete orchestral scores ever existed they are lost. The Intermezzo was inspired by a poem by Heine, in particular the lines “The mysterious isle of the spirits showed faintly in the moonlight; exquisite sounds reached the ear and dancing shapes floated mistily. The music grew ever sweeter, the whirling dance more alluring…” I quote here from Caroline Waight’s translation in the booklet notes for the Naxos release of the same music. It is again a rather Delibes-like and forthright piece, with only occasional touches of mature Debussy in evidence; and it doesn’t sound in the least “mysterious” in this performance.
 
The Première Suite was only discovered as recently as 2008, and derives in part from Debussy’s incidental music for Chansons de Bilitis; not to be confused with the song settings of the same title. It has been recorded a number of times, but a completion of the orchestration of the pieces might give us a better idea of the music as the composer originally conceived it. Apparently an incomplete full score of the Suite does exist, but is missing the third movement; in this form it has been recorded by Les Siècles under the enterprising François-Xavier Roth, although I have not heard this. Again one is indebted for this information to the notes for the Naxos recording - this time by Gérard Hugon. One wishes that Marco Rapetti’s notes for this release had been more similarly informative. The opening movement, entitled Fête, inhabits much the same world as the later Suite bergamasque; and the slow waltz Rêve which constitutes the third movement begins like a close cousin of Satie’s Je te veux written some eighteen years later, developing into a grand climax which anticipates Neptune’s chariot in Respighi’s Fountains of Rome.
 
The works on the second CD are generally more familiar, although usually in their orchestral guises provided by Debussy himself or his contemporaries like Henri Büsser. However the Divertissement which opens the disc is also a comparative rarity. Here we begin to glimpse the mature Debussy in a work which anticipates the Tarantelle styrienne in its infectious rhythms. This is in fact the longest single track on these three CDs, and its inclusion is welcome.
 
The three brief dances extracted from L’enfant prodigue finally introduce us to the composer’s mature genius in its first flowering. They work well in the piano duo format with the hieratic Prélude being particularly beautiful in this arrangement. Printemps was a work that Debussy wrote during his stay in Italy following his success in the Prix de Rome, and it exists in a number of different forms. The piano duet version is skilful; but the following Petite Suite, the first really mature work in this set, suffers from the closeness of the piano recording with the Cortêge and the final Ballet in particular sounding decidedly strident and over-loud. Both the Marche écossaise and the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune suffer less from this, but the works really sound far better in their orchestral guise. The opening of the Marche, so atmospheric in the orchestral version, sounds much too ‘present’ and ‘precise’ in this recording. The impressionist haze in the central section of the Prélude is rather too literally displayed.
 
The final disc includes, besides the transcriptions of La mer and the Danses sacrées et profanes, Debussy’s three major works for piano duo in the form of Lindaraja, the Six épigraphes antiques and his masterpiece in the form En blanc et noir. These three works have received many excellent performances over the years, and one has to confess that they too would sound much better in the more realistic perspective of the concert hall. Both Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti are excellent players, but the closely observed sound to which their performance is subjected seriously robs the music of atmosphere. I managed to obtain a more acceptable sound by the use of various tone controls, but one would really have hoped that the notes would have been given more room to breathe.
 
Although there is much value in having all Debussy’s works for two pianists in one comprehensive box, there are alternative versions of most of these pieces available on various Naxos discs - not much more expensively. It must be admitted that the recorded acoustic on those CDs is more resonant and less congested than the sound here. The Naxos discs also come with much more informative and extensive booklet notes, which are of great value in investigating the extreme rarities such as the Suite and the Symphony. However for Debussy completists this issue is self-recommending.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey
 

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