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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Jeux, poème-dansé en un acte (1912-13) [18:46]
Khamma, légende dansée (1911-12) [21:40]
La Boîte à Joujoux, ballet pour enfants (1913) [33:45]
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. 2014/15 Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
BIS BIS-2162 SACD [75:18]

The conductor Lan Shui leading his own Singapore Symphony Orchestra proved his affinity for Debussy back in 2007, when he performed an excellent La Mer as part of a very appealing disc entitled "Seascapes". I see that the same recording was expanded into a full Debussy disc about seven years later, the couplings of which I have not heard. The bulk of this “new” disc, Khamma and La boite, also date from 2014 sessions. Jeux completes the generously filled disc from 2015 sessions. I can only assume a production backlog at BIS has delayed the release of this very fine disc by another two years. For not only is this a predictably excellent disc in the best tradition of BIS, but the programme is surprisingly rare if not unique. The three works represent the sum of Debussy’s original music for ballets and includes one certain masterpiece, albeit an elusive one: Jeux. For sure, there are multiple recordings of all three works. Khamma and Jeux are occasionally partnered but I cannot find another recording to offer this one-stop-shop. I suppose the counterargument is that apart from them all being balletic works, the level of inspiration is relatively varied. Debussy seems to have lost interest part-way through Khamma, wrote the masterpiece that is Jeux almost despite the—quite literal—desires of Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, and was a sick man by the time of his orchestrating the divertimento-like La Boîte à Joujoux.
But I have to say I am not sure I have heard more persuasive performances of these works individually, so collectively this is a very attractive programme indeed. In no small part this is due to the technical excellence of the disc. Certainly by the time of Jeux's composition (the liner notes usefully remind us that the premiere was just two weeks before Stravinsky's revolutionary Rite of Spring) Debussy was distilling his use of form, rhythm and melody down into an elusively minimalist style. That style was to hinder appreciation of the work’s importance for the best part of half a century. What we are given here is a hyper-sensitive performance, full of subtle half-lights and touched in nuances captured in demonstration quality sound. So the merest brush on a suspended cymbal or a subtly articulated harp figuration registers with a clarity and sonic truthfulness that serves the music to perfection.

Likewise, the languid Khamma is brilliantly served by both players and engineers. The plot is slight, even allowing for the brief twenty-one minute duration. The eponymous dancer is in an Egyptian temple, dancing before the Sun-God Ra to deliver her city from invaders. After a sequence of dances she is struck dead by his divinity and her body is blessed by priests. Charles Koechlin collaborated with Debussy over the orchestration, and it is masterly. In many ways it could be thought to encapsulate what is known as'impressionist orchestral writing. Melodic lines and instrumental textures rarely establish themselves with any sense of extended continuity. These fragmentary collage-like textures can cause problems for interpreters and audience alike, so all praise to Shui for producing such a coherent performance regardless of whether you think this is substantial music or not.

Curiously, the interesting and well-written liner notes miss a trick in linking this piece to other works of contemporaneous exotica that it matches in spirit. They are Roussel’s Evocations Op. 15 of 1911 and even more sensuous La Peri by Dukas of 1912. Not that these are musically the same. Simply put, though, they share a similar fascination for the “mystic east” that seemed to stimulate French composers more than any of their European counterparts. Given Debussy’s predilection for the blurring of the lines of harmony and rhythm, he is not the most obvious or easiest choice as a ballet composer. Even with the prestige of being commissions by leading dancers and dance companies of their day, none of these works have retained much hold on the dance stage. That being the case, the concert hall and the recording studio seem to be the places where this repertoire is most likely to be encountered.

For all its musical ambiguity, Jeux has had some very fine recorded performances over the years. De Sabata, Cluytens and Ansermet all have contributed well regarded accounts, although the half-lights of this score really do require high fidelity to allow the subtlety of the score’s detail to register. Ansermet’s 1958 Geneva recording, which also includes Khamma, has been given the Decca Legendary Performances make-over, and is much praised as a classic performance, although I must admit not to knowing it. More surprisingly, there do not appear to be versions by Monteux or Munch to compare. Martinon’s survey for EMI of both Debussy and Ravel was my entry point for this repertoire. I am still very fond of those performances which benefit from the wholly idiomatic sound of French orchestras in the 1970s. In more recent times Haitink’s 1980 recording won a double Grammophone award for orchestral performance and engineering coupling Jeux with the Nocturnes. That is still a very impressive disc more than 35 years on, even in the face of competition from all the main orchestras and conductors in the interim. Considering the strength of that competition, it is intended high praise to say that this new recording demands comparison with the very finest. For me, Shui just shades Haitink, although that is a combination of the sensitive performance supported by the superb engineering.

The longest work here, La Boîte à Joujoux, feels the most inconsequential. That said, Debussy engaged with the project, initially at least, with more enthusiasm than he had shown for Khamma. Ill-health ,intervened requiring André Caplet to complete the orchestration. By the time of the 1919 premiere both the composer and the source of the work’s inspiration, his daughter Claude-Emma known as Chouchou, were dead. When working on the 1913 piano original, Debussy recognised that the deliberately simplistic drawings which were the source of the ballet required equally direct music. So after the exotic and evanescent preceding ballets this comes across as the most uncomplicated of Debussy’s later scores. Again it is given an exceptionally sympathetic and evocative performance by Lan Shui and his Singapore players. I have to say, however, that I have never been so convinced by the slightly self-conscious naivety the score seeks to create, or the quotations from existing music, be they self-referencing or children’s songs. That said, Shui finds a perfect balance between the textural clarity and gentle nostalgia of Debussy’s writing to the point where I would say that this is as persuasive a performance as I have heard. Caplet’s very skilful orchestration takes a more sensitive ear than mine to recognise where Caplet ends and Debussy begins.

So, a disc that uniquely couples Debussy’s three late ballet scores would be of interest in any case. With a playing time over seventy-five minutes this is good value by that measure alone. However, add to that deeply impressive performances both interpretively and musically, presented in demonstration SA-CD sound, and you have a truly excellent disc. Another BIS triumph.

Nick Barnard



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