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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Jeunes Années
Suite Bergamasque [17:58]
Mazurka [3:26]
Images oubliées [13:04]
Arabesque No.2 [3:59]
Fantasie for piano and orchestra [24:59]
Petite suite [12:47]
Ariettes oubliées [14:28]
Trois chansons de Bilitis [8:25]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (transcription by Jonas Vitaud for solo piano) [9:48]
Jonas Vitaud (piano), Roustem Saïtkoulov (second pianist), Sébastien Droy (tenor), Karine Desayes (mezzo-soprano), Secession Orchestra / Clément Mao-Takacs
rec. 2017, Notre Dame du Liban, Paris; Théâtre Auditorium du Poitiers, France
MIRARE MIR392 [64:00+45:00]

All the pieces on this recording were composed between 1885, when Debussy was 23, and 1898. Perhaps only the first and last pieces listed above are amongst his most familiar works, and all the major masterpieces lay ahead in the 20 years of life remaining to him. So this assemblage of piano and vocal items, plus one for piano and orchestra, is a portrait of one of the greatest and most original of all composers forging his highly distinctive identity, and necessarily taking his time.

Jonas Vitaud opens the Suite Bergamasque with a touch too much rubato maybe, especially at phrase ends, but it sounds personal rather than perverse, and always idiomatic. This adds 10 seconds to the timings of Seong-Jin Cho (on DG) and 30 seconds to Pascal Rogé (Onyx). Yet in Clair de lune we get the reverse, with Cho and Rogé’s timings of 5:30 reduced to 4:47 – but it sounds just fine. So from the outset we are in the hands of a pianist who has his own take on the music, but within the established tradition of Debussy playing. The next item, the Mazurka, is much less familiar than the Suite Bergamasque, but Vitaud makes it seem just as engaging. He does the same with the Images oubliées, where we have familiar pieces in less familiar versions, and it is not Vitaud’s fault if we can hear why Debussy later made his revisions to them. The second Arabesque is perfect ‘salon’ Debussy, of course, and in Vitaud’s account it is not hard to imagine this teasing Allegretto scherzando delighting young Claude’s fashionable fin-de-siècle Parisian audience.

The Fantasie is rare enough in concert that it could barely be said to have a performing tradition, and it is an enterprising addition to this programme. I have heard it live twice in the 2018 centenary year, but in amongst later Debussy masterpieces, so that it sounded rather weak in invention by comparison to La mer or the Nocturnes. It is much easier to enjoy it in this context, especially when Vitaud brings such freshness to it. The Secession Orchestra is a French ensemble of about 40 musicians concerned mainly with playing contemporary and 20th century music. They play very well indeed, even if as recorded here, live in a church, the strings sound undernourished. The sense of pianist and the orchestral musicians working together and listening to each other is especially beguiling in the Lento e molto espressivo slow movement, and the finale truly sparkles. I do not know a better performance of this particular piece (not that there are that many, I suspect).

With the opening of the second CD it is back to the salon and the piano for four hands of the Petite suite. The pianists do not make this slight jeu d’esprit sound any more than that but can at least be heard to enjoy themselves, which is arguably the main aim of such a piece. The major items of the second CD are songs, which genre makes up a large part of the early Debussy, obsessed as he was with contemporary poetry and singers (one or two of the latter not just for their voices). In the six songs of the Ariettes oubliées, tenor Sébastien Droy sounds ideal in style. Here he has the inimitable confiding manner we associate with the mélodie of this era, as concerned with text as with the notes, as if sharing a few favourite poems as much as singing songs for us. He is perhaps more ardent than perfectly secure in the upper range at times. Mezzo Karine Desayes, though her biography speaks of her many achievements in opera, is also in the major league of the singers of this repertoire, certainly on this evidence. It is in these songs that the mature Debussy first emerges perhaps – after all he is working on his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) for quite a while towards the end of this career phase.

The last item is the one undisputed masterpiece here, the first perfect example of the Debussyan aesthetic, but it is also a surprise. For we have not the incomparable Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune for orchestra, but a transcription by Jonas Vitaud for solo piano. Now this is a work which ushers in the modernist era, years before the Rite of Spring, by taking Schubert’s orchestra – plus a harp as we are in France, and a pair of antique cymbals for that ‘ching’ at the end – and whispers, more effectively than Strauss and Mahler ever shouted, ‘welcome to a new world’. To arrange it for solo piano is an abomination therefore, and I was grumpily ready to hate it. And, absurdly enough, it works. The Prélude is even greater than I thought, reduced to its black-and-white essence and drained of its wonderfully subtle colours, the residual line and harmony are almost as seductive as the original.

There is good warm sound, and the usual cursory booklet note – it is fine as far as it goes but this programme really needs more space and context and biography for a full appreciation of the music. Comparisons are irrelevant for there are none. You would need at least four CDs very shrewdly chosen to collect these pieces together. So this is an excellent annex to the composer’s anniversary year, a compendium that offers a real conspectus on the emergence of a great artist. Jonas Vitaud, the one common element in every item of a diverse collection, brings an impressive degree of feeling for the era, the composer, and his instrument, to a very fine issue.

Roy Westbrook

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