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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Jeux, poème dansé en un acte (1912-13) [18:46]
Khamma, légende dansée (1911-12) orchestrated by Charles Kœchlin [21:40]
La Boîte à joujoux, ballet pour enfants (1913) orchestration completed by André Caplet [33:45]
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. 2014/15, Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
Reviewed in surround
BIS BIS2162 SACD [75:18]

The previous Debussy disc from these performers was reviewed with considerable enthusiasm, especially in the case of La Mer. I carefully avoided reading my colleagues' words prior to assessing this second disc but, having now repaired that, I am pleased to be able to echo their opinions. The SSO and Lan Shui have indeed got a remarkable feel for this music. Combined with a very fine and detailed recording in surround this second disc is also a winner.

The first thing that struck me was the structural clarity brought to the greatest work, Jeux. My list of alternative performances, going back to Jean Martinon in 1974, exhibit much refinement and tonal beauty but not until this new BIS SACD have I been so aware of the architecture underlying the beauty. I can only echo Jean-Pascal Vachon's booklet note when he states that this is one of the hardest pieces in the symphonic repertoire to analyse. To a listener this seemed to progress inevitably to its cryptic final notes, at no point was it just a wash of impressionist sound. The composer remarked ironically that he came to realise that a choreographer is a man who is very strong on arithmetic. This cleanly delineated performance would surely be less difficult for the dancers to count than many an alternative.

Jeux is only about a quarter of the disc and the other two works, also composed just before the First World War, are much less performed in the concert hall. A search online showed little evidence of stagings of La Boîte à joujoux and Khamma has yet to be staged. Neither were completed by Debussy himself. In the case of Khamma he orchestrated just a few pages before handing over to Charles Kœchlin "under his supervision". The work apparently annoyed Debussy, presumably the scenario lacked the cohesion he wanted but he could also have been doubtful about working with the notorious dancer Maud Allan. He described it as: "that queer ballet, with its trumpet calls, which suggest a riot or an outbreak of fire, and give one the shivers." Debussy's music was quite adventurous and contained, according to the composer, "the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry. " Kœchlin recalls that Debussy was happy with his orchestration. One commentator even suggests he came back to the piece. Certainly the plot line is sufficient to make for an eventful work. Kœchlin was no mean composer himself and he makes a splendidly dramatic job of Debussy's score, sufficient, one would have thought, to make it more frequent in our concert halls than it is. Perhaps it is true that the final score sounds more like Kœchlin than Debussy but since Debussy approved, that seems irrelevant. Here the SSO and Shui give it their considerable best and it makes for good listening whatever its perceived shortcomings.

The final piece is his ballet for children La Boîte à joujoux. In this case he orchestrated most of it leaving a little to be completed, when illness overtook him, by his friend Caplet. Entertaining though this piece is it does not have the coherence of Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye and to my mind it is not too surprising it is neglected. However, second class Debussy is a great deal better than many another lesser composer. Performed as it is here the work charms the ear throughout and is very much worth the occasional hearing.

I have already mentioned the very informative booklet notes by Professor Vachon. With two out of three works which are obscure they are more than usually useful and maintain BIS' reputation for providing high quality documentation. Overall I would recommend this most strongly for Jeux and regard Khamma as a valuable reminder that some works do not deserve neglect. The recording allows the spacious acoustic of Singapore's Esplanade Concert Hall to be heard, a reminder that yet another city has a better large hall than London.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Nick Barnard



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