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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Rêveries de Bilitis - Music for Two Harps and Voice
Danse sacrée et danse profane [9:28]
Proses lyriques [18:17]
Ballade [6:26]
Trois Chansons de Bilitis [8:36]
Six Épigraphes Antiques [16:03]
Duo Bilitis (Eva Tebbe (harp), Ekaterina Levental (mezzo-soprano and harp))
rec Acadaemiezaal,Sint-Truiden, Belgium, 2017

Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane was written for harp and strings, but is here transcribed for two harps by one of the duettists, Ekaterina Levental, and I think the transcription works very well indeed. The harps are recorded rather closely, but not distractingly so.

The dances are followed by Debussy’s Proses lyriques of 1892-3, arranged by the same duettist, who also sings here. In their original form, they are accompanied by piano, but the two harps work well, as for the most part does Ms Levental’s rich mezzo. The texts are Debussy’s own and are rather obscure for much of the time, although Debussy’s interest in Wagner shows through in the midst of the first song where he sets the phrase - “The knights are dead on the road to the Grail”. The heart of the cycle is the third song ‘De fleurs’, which reaches a couple of impassioned climaxes, made more effective by the surrounding soft music. However, I do rather wish that the singer’s voice had been recorded less closely; this would have reduced the impact of her vibrato, which becomes a mite intrusive when the voice is under pressure.

The earliest work on the disc, dating from 1890, is the six minute ‘Ballade’, arranged for two harps by the other member of the duo, Eva Tebbe. Originally entitled ‘Ballade Slave’ for piano, it is easy to believe that Debussy’s time with Nadezhda von Meck in the 1880’s resulted in his exposure to Russian music, and may have provided the impulse for this slight piece.

The Trois Chansons de Bilitis are settings of poems by Debussy’s close friend, Pierre Louys. The poet originally claimed that they were translations of texts by a Greek woman, Bilitis, who was a contemporary of Sappho. It seems that he initially was believed, even by experts and when he subsequently admitted authorship, a great scandal broke. The first song ‘La flûte de pan’ achieves a delicate eroticism and cool sense of the antique, wholly supported by the harps. Thee cycle’s only fortissimo passage occurs in the second song, where the words speak of sexual fulfilment, and once again I could have done with a less forwardly balanced voice.

Seven years later, in 1914, Debussy continued work on the thematic material that he used in the tableaux vivants settings of readings of some of the Bilitis poems. He produced the ‘Six Épigraphes antiques’, wherein the few seconds of music accompanying each of the tableaux vivants is extracted and extended. The new work was written for piano duet - Debussy planned to orchestrate the pieces, but never got round to it. Here we have the pianos replaced by two harps, and Eva Tebbe has mined some of the original harp scores used in the tableaux. In this she has followed Debussy’s lead, where in the piano score he imitates the sound of harp and celeste in the original. The result makes for an interesting listen, although I must admit that I didn’t find the pieces to be anything like as enticing as the preceding songs. However, the cool tinkling of the harps suits them very well and I can understand the desire of the Duo to have an arrangement suited to their own instruments.

Jim Westhead

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