City of Light: New Discoveries
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’Histoire de Tristan (1907, reconstructed by Robert Orledge 2011) [4:23]
No-ja-la ou le Palais du silence (1913-14, reconstructed by Robert Orledge 2005-14) [16:01]
André JOLIVET (1905-74)
Poémes intimes (1944) [15:39]
Robert FOKKENS (b.1975)
Ukuhamba kukufunda – To travel is to learn (2013-15) [12:31]
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone: Jolivet)
Stephen Walsh (narrator: No-ja)
Cardiff University Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Mark Eager
rec. University Concert Hall, Cardiff, 2015
PRIMA FACIE PFNSCD005 [49:00]
This disc is a timely celebration of the music of Claude Debussy, the centenary of whose death is being widely commemorated this year, although the two world première issues of his music included on this disc were in fact recorded three years ago (it appears the disc may have been released at that time, but it seems to have somehow escaped the critics’ attention). I have over recent years reviewed two other ‘realisations’ of Debussy sketches by Robert Orledge, but I missed the Cardiff concert at which the two items here were performed. I did hear and enjoy Orledge’s completion of Debussy’s sketches for his uncompleted opera on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher given by Welsh National Opera in 2014, and I also commented favourably in 2016 on his realisation of a Nocturne for violin and orchestra given at a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. As I remarked on the latter, Orledge’s sympathy with Debussy’s style, and his imitation of the French master’s orchestral technique, is superlatively convincing – in the case of the Poe opera, more so than the alternative ‘completion’ by Juan Allende-Blin which has long been available on disc.
At the same time, especially given Orledge’s commentary in the CD booklet here, I find myself wondering how much of the music actually comes from Debussy’s sketches and how much is a more freely developed composition by Orledge himself in Debussy’s manner. We are told that the prelude written for a (now lost) French drama by Gabriel Mourey on the well-worn subject of Tristan did not precisely enthuse the composer – he described it as “not very lyrical” – and that the four and a half minutes of music we hear on this CD were “reconstructed and orchestrated” in 2011. Debussy was clearly responsible for the opening off-stage trumpet calls and the dance-like theme which he sent to his publishers in 1907, both of which bear his clear stamp; but I suspect that some of the further development of that material may have been the result of the editor’s hand rather than the composer’s. Not that there are any obvious joins or inauthentic-sounding passages; indeed the miniature prelude has a real sense of dramatic presence. Orledge’s absorption into Debussy’s style is thoroughly equal to the similar process of osmosis that we find in Anthony Payne’s Elgar Third Symphony, for example. In fact this prelude makes a very valuable addition to the non-Wagnerian treatments of the legend, to stand beside Frank Martin’s Le vin herbé and Rutland Boughton’s The Queen of Cornwall, for example.
The ‘Chinese ballet’ score No-ja-li, with its alternative title The palace of silence, was originally scheduled for performance in 1914, but it was left unfinished. Charles Koechlin, who was approached with a view to providing a completion in the same manner as he had done for Debussy’s Khamma, declined the invitation to do so. Orledge is his booklet note describes Debussy’s sketches as “extensive”; he has also had access to the original scenario, incorporating some interpolated passages from Koechlin’s Gamelang Salandro. Koechlin of course had a real and lifelong interest in the music of Asia, and quite apart from Khamma his own compositions include multifarious settings of Kipling’s Jungle Book and the extensive suite Les heures persanes. It is not therefore necessarily clear that some of the more oriental passages in No-ja-li as we hear them on this recording derive from Debussy’s own fascination with Balinese music or from that of Koechlin; Orledge himself acknowledges that he is responsible for the “added gamelan prelude”.
The opening, with its massive chords, proclaims a work which was clearly intended to be of real stature. The plot, outlined in full in the booklet, strikes me however as whimsical beyond endurance, and the interjection of Stephen Walsh as a melodramatic narrator near the outset adds little in the way of enlightenment. None of that matters. What we hear is a surprisingly violent score from this composer, with dramatic interjections erupting into delicately pentatonic textures and sharply delineated contrasts of theme, colour and dynamic. The ‘ballet-within-a-ballet’ by Koechlin fits splendidly into its context, and the concluding chorus of rejoicing brings echoes of St Sebastian arriving in heaven. Although Robert Orledge does his best to signpost the scenario by indications of themes and scoring, one could perhaps have had comprehension aided if the score itself had been subdivided with individual CD tracks for each scene. But this piece is a real discovery, a whole new aspect of Debussy which has hitherto been concealed, and as such its first appearance on disc will be welcomed by all the composer’s admirers.
A further première recording of French music comes with the orchestral version of André Jolivet’s Poèmes intimes, five settings of love poetry addressed to the composer’s wife as a celebration of their tenth wedding anniversary. It seems to me that Jolivet’s setting of the French language is not as idiomatic as that of many of his contemporaries – some of the passages are delivered in a rather hustled manner – but the orchestration adds a sense of colour to the music with a prominently featured saxophone. Jeremy Huw Williams sounds stressed in some of the more stratospheric passages (the songs were originally intended for the peculiarly French tones of a baryton-martin with the extended upper range characteristic of that voice), and he is set rather too far forward in the acoustic balance to allow the natural resonance of his shading of the phrases to be appreciated at their best. The best impression is made by the fourth song Tu dors, whose chamber-music-like delicacy evokes the spirit of Ravel, but the cycle as a whole well merits its revival.
The music of the South-African-born Robert Fokkens might seem an odd companion piece on such a French-oriented programme. The booklet justifies this by saying that his “scintillating African-inspired eclecticism links with Ravel as part of our wider exploration of the French fascination for colour and timbre”. Well, although this is perhaps somewhat special pleading, the music itself does display some tangential links to French orchestral style, and is well worth hearing in its own right. The persistent rhythms show descent from Ravel’s Boléro, although their variation is much more widely subjected to permutation. One might, however, welcome a greater sense of air around the sound. The rather dry acoustic of the hall is not helped by a lack of atmosphere in the microphone placement, and this is apparent throughout the rest of the music on this disc as well. The orchestral playing can withstand such close scrutiny, and there is none of the thinness of string tone that one can encounter with student orchestras – there is a substantial body of them listed in the booklet.
The booklet notes are comprehensive, and we are given full texts and translations for both the Jolivet songs and the interpolated spoken narration in the Debussy ballet (we only get the translation of the closing chorus in that work). There are also biographies of all the artists concerned (the first sentence of that for Robert Fokkens reappears rather oddly as the closing sentence of the composer’s own programme note). The recorded sound, given the limitations of the venue, is realistic and well-balanced. All Debussy fans will need to hear the two ‘new’ works on this disc, and will find the other music rewarding too. None of the works are to be heard elsewhere, and this CD is therefore self-recommending.
Paul Corfield Godfrey