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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata (1917) [14:12]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [4:35]
Page d’album – Pour l’Œuvre de “vêtement du blessé” (1915) [0’54”]
Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) [17:33]
Elégie (1915) [2:23]
Cello Sonata (1915) [12:03]
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) [2:16]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Alexander Melnikov. Tanguy de Williencourt, Javier Perianes (piano)
Magali Mosnier (flute)
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Xavier de Maistre (harp)
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
rec. 2016-18, Teldex Studio, Berlin; Cité de la Musique, Paris
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902303 [54:00]

The final years of Claude Debussy’s life were truly wretched. He was profoundly affected by the First World War and in great discomfort from cancer. His letters reveal his delight during a burst of activity in 1915. Otherwise, the war years were for him a period of pitiful struggle to work and to create.

This disc collects together much of the music he composed during that time. It forms part of an extended series in which Harmonia Mundi and that company’s artists commemorate the anniversary of Debussy’s death. The presentation is sumptuous in Harmonia Mundi style, with excellent insert notes, and the performances are full of character and are beautifully recorded. The whole is worthy of the music’s exalted stature.

Debussy described his Violin Sonata, with some irony, as “a good example of what a sick man can produce in wartime”. Is it a valedictory work? Is the dancing rhythm of the finale as light-hearted as it seems? And what are we to make of that slinky waltz that makes a short appearance in the middle of movement? In less than a quarter of an hour the work passes through countless moods to finish in something that sounds like defiance. It receives, from Isabelle Faust, as fine a performance as you are likely to hear. Listening without the score one is struck by the violinist’s frequent use of portamento, as well as the unusually wide range of dynamics and colour employed. The score reveals how scrupulously faithful she is to the composer’s abundant expression marks. The piano part is highly challenging, but Alexander Melnikov is totally in control and totally at one with the violinist.

The little Berceuse héroïque is short enough to be overlooked even by Debussy enthusiasts, which is a pity. It pays touching hommage to the King of the Belgians, being Debussy’s contribution, alongside other distinguished artists, to King Albert’s Book, published by none other than the London Daily Telegraph. It’s a melancholy work, and very much of its time, with its brief references to the Belgian national anthem and the occasional discreet military fanfare. The gravity of the performance by Tanguy de Williencourt is matched by the extreme delicacy and touching attention he gives to the tiny, wistful waltz that follows, composed for a charity that provided clothes for wounded people.

Is there a more delicate, fragile work of chamber music than Debussy’s late trio? You might not receive that impression if you are hearing the work for the first time in this performance. That most adventurous and exploratory viola player, Antoine Tamestit, seems determined to make his instrument’s role more imposing than we are used to in this work, a policy clearly shared by his partners. Textures are clearly defined, marked accents respected, even exaggerated, and the close recording – a different venue and a different team from the rest of the programme – adds to the feeling of unaccustomed robustness. There are certainly passages where piano and pianissimo markings are neglected, and I do feel some of the essential intimacy of the work is lost. It’s a refreshing change, though, and one that sheds new light on a work I have known and loved for decades, and there is no doubting the technical mastery of each of the players. For the record, Xavier de Maistre plays on a late nineteenth-century Erard harp, and Magali Mosnier’s French-made flute from 1880 even gets a page to itself in the booklet. Poor Antoine Tamestit has to make do with a 1672 Stradivarius.

Another short piano work you are unlikely to hear in recital is Elégie. It is one of the composer’s most sombre pages, improvisatory in character, its thematic material concentrated in the left hand, and with harmonies so bitter than many might not recognise Debussy amongst them.

A magnificent performance of the Cello Sonata follows. I particularly like the opening in Javier Perianes’s hands, serious and imposing, yet with a deep humanity that stems from Debussy’s harmonies. When the climax of the movement is reached you can almost hear the pride that invited and allowed Debussy to sign himself as “Musicien français” on the title pages of these sonatas. These performers seem to have the sense of this and bring it out perfectly. Queyras produces a deep, resonant sound that is very appealing. Does he overdo a few ‘swells’ on individual notes? No, I don’t think so, though some listeners might - just slightly.

After the sonata’s assertive close comes Les soirs illuminés (“Evenings lit by the glow of coals”). Debussy chose his title from a poem by Baudelaire that he had set to music more than thirty years earlier. Behind it hides a sad story. Fuel was strictly rationed during the war, and the ailing Debussy delivered the manuscript, containing some of the last notes he composed, to his coal merchant in the hope of securing deliveries.

William Hedley


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