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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor (1893) [23.48}
Syrinx (1913) [2.36]
Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) [16.53]
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915) [12.42]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917) [13.30]
Sigiswald Kuijken (violin/viola); Veronica Kuijken (violin); Sara Kuijken (viola); Wieland Kuijken (cello); Barthold Kuijken (flute); Piet Kuijken (piano); Sophie Hallynck (harp)
rec. 12-17 September 1999, Centre culturel, Lommel, Belgium
ARCANA A392 [71.00]

This reissue of a 2000 CD presents six members of the Kuijken family in more recent repertoire than is their usual habitat. The only non-member of the family, the harpist Sophie Hallynck, plays an Erard harp from the 1920s, and the piano used is also an Erard, from 1894. The other instruments, too, are more or less of the period, with the exception of the cello, which was made in 1999 by yet another Kuijken family member. All this might lead the listener to expect performances that adopt and respect turn of the century period style, but this is only partly the case. Indeed, the general absence of expressive device in the performance of the earliest work in the collection, the String Quartet, makes for a reading with classical leanings. It is an effective and enjoyable performance, only slightly marred by occasional moments of sour intonation and the odd unlovely sound. More successful still, however, are the performances of the sublime later works.

Claude Debussy’s final appearance on the concert platform took place on 5 May 1917, when he accompanied Gaston Poulet in the first performance of his Violin Sonata. The cancer that had been diagnosed some two years previously claimed him in March of the following year. In the final phase of his composing life he devoted himself to a series of six sonatas for different instruments, a sign of his increasing interest in classical models and a more abstract style. It is also revealing, given the global situation, that he appended the words “Musicien français” to his name on the published scores of the three he completed before he died. A manuscript annotation tells us that the fourth of the series was to be for oboe, horn and harpsichord.

Debussy had, it would appear, a poor opinion of his Violin Sonata. A month after the premiere he dismissed his final completed work as something “a sick man might produce in time of war”. Today, however, mastering it represents an important milestone in any student violinist’s journey, and few of world’s greatest players ignore it. There is a certain sensuous languor about the first movement that is difficult to pin down, and the runaway theme that dominates the finale can be heard as light-hearted, until the movement draws to a close, where the composer’s treatment of it transforms it into something darker and more threatening. Sigiswald Kuijken and Piet Kuijken capture beautifully the wide-ranging moods of these two movements. Only in the middle movement of the three, marked Fantasque et léger, do I feel that a lighter touch from both musicians might have brought us just a little closer to the real essence of the piece.

Few chamber works have a more arresting opening than Debussy’s glorious Cello Sonata, and this performance begins extremely well, properly weighty in preparation for what is to come. I find that Wieland Kuijken rather downplays the passion of the work thereafter; in this first movement in particular, when the music moves towards the cello’s lower register the playing lacks assertiveness. Both players capture well the quirkiness of the second movement, and the finale goes well too. It would be idle to pretend that Kuijken possesses the outsize personality of Rostropovich, not to mention the Russian’s astonishing virtuosity, but many will prefer the relative restraint of the present performance. In my view, though, Rostropovich’s deeply committed reading, with Benjamin Britten revelatory at the piano, is one that will probably never be surpassed.

The most elusive of the three sonatas is that for flute, viola and harp. It is an intensely poetic work, wistful and melancholy, fragile but with an extraordinary inner strength of purpose. The sounds that Debussy conjures up out of his unlikely trio are miraculous; the work would lose its raison d’être were any one of the instruments substituted for another. Barthold Kuijken is an excellent flautist, his rich, pure tone and restrained use of vibrato as suited to this work as it is to the celebrated and inscrutable Syrinx. His partners, Sigiswald Kuijken – Sara plays only in the Quartet – and Sophie Hallynck are just as accomplished, and their ensemble playing is beyond praise. I grew up with the famous Melos Ensemble performance of this work, and graduated, in my student days, to another on Philips featuring the great Arthur Grumiaux. If this performance doesn’t appeal to me quite as much as those two classics from the past it’s because the Kuijken group don’t quite capture what is for me the essential fragility of the work. It’s not that they play too loudly, nothing so simple as that. That said, Debussy even manages a bravura close without sacrificing the profound intimacy of the medium, and the Kuijken’s don’t quite match up to that. The recording is very clear and rich, but also quite close, allowing the listener to hear, for example, the viola bow passing across the strings. This is, nonetheless, a highly distinguished performance of a deeply moving and unorthodox masterpiece that will bring satisfaction to its listeners.

William Hedley



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