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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
The Unknown Debussy: Rare Piano Music
Nicolas Horvath (piano)
Florient Azoulay (narrator)
rec. 2019 La Fabrique des Rêves Recording Studio, Misy-sur-Yonne, France
GRAND PIANO GP822 [84:48]

This CD consists of several recovered works by Claude Debussy. They have been researched by the musicologist Robert Orledge, who has studied many of the composer’s sketches and drafts. He has reconstructed several lost works and has made piano transcriptions of pieces that are on the fringes of Debussy’s catalogue. The highlights here include an early version of ‘La Fille aux cheveux de lin’ and an unused movement from Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. Equally important are the paraphrases on two unfinished operas and the largely forgotten ballet No-ja-li (Le Palais du Silence)

The first six tracks on this CD feature some ‘Préludes Oubliés’ – forgotten preludes. The first is a piano transcription of the opening ‘prelude’ to Debussy’s prize-winning cantata, L’ Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son) composed in 1884. This work was originally conceived for tenor, soprano and orchestra. It is a lovely romantic little piece that seems to have nothing to do with the subject matter of the cantata. Next up is Rodrigue et Chimène which was an early ‘Wagnerian’ opera. The liner notes do not state exactly what this music was to have been used for in the stage work. It is an insightful piece that looks forward to Debussy’s later style. There follows early versions of the ubiquitous ‘La Fille au cheveux de lin’ and slightly less popular ‘Bruyères’ (Heather or a town in Eastern France). Both give an understanding into the composer’s early thoughts which will be valuable for students of the published Préludes. Interposed between these two pieces is the ‘Prélude à l’Histoire de Tristan’ written in 1907. It would seem to be all that exists of a projected opera Le Roman de Tristan. It was originally one of that work’s themes. A Breton folk-tune has been worked into this piece by Robert Orledge. The last of the forgotten preludes is ‘Toomai des éléphants’ which has been reconstructed from sketches intended for the 11th Prelude in Book 2. It was eventually replaced by the Stravinskian ‘Les tierces alternées’. Orledge’s reworking also includes elements derived from La Boîte à joujoux. Overall, I am glad that this lugubrious music was not used in the Préludes.

The sketches for the ‘Petite Valse’ were included in an auction sale in Paris in 2004. This has been edited into a pleasant little piece that owes something to La plus que lente (1910). As the liner notes suggest, this is an ideal piece for recitalists to feature as ‘a novelty by a great composer’. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Fêtes Galantes was originally planned as an opera/ballet in three acts with a libretto drawn from Paul Verlaine’s poems. The stage setting was a Watteau-like park or garden. I am not sure what the thematic or literary relationship of this piano piece is with the eponymous song-cycle Debussy composed in 1904, also based on Verlaine’s poetry. The present piano work, ‘Les Masques’ is pleasantly attractive, if a little long winded.
I did not enjoy the piano arrangement of the [probably] first draft of ‘La Passion’, which was the third of the ‘Fragments symphoniques’ in Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). I feel that despite the occasionally anxious nature of this music, it has little to do with martyrdom. It is a well-wrought piece, that, despite my misgivings, deserves to be in the Debussyian canon.

Paul Corfield Godfrey gives an excellent overview of of Debussy’s No-Ja-Li (Le Palais du Silence) (1914), a Chinese ballet in one act in his review of the orchestral version. This was released on Prima Facie (PFNSCD005). I need comment no further on the ‘plot’. The piano ‘reduction’ has been included on this present CD. The music often sounds rather un-Debussyian to my ear. Yet there is a magic here. Just occasionally the undiluted enchantment of Debussy emerges from the exotic sounds of the gamelan and the Charles Koechlin interpolations. Does this music provide an indication of the direction of travel that Debussy was making at the beginning of the Great War? Despite the insipid plot of this ballet score, there is much of interest and some considerable beauty in the music.

The four pieces that make up the piano suite, Le Roi Lear appear to be a piano transcription of the incidental music written for the play in 1904. This was orchestrated by Roger-Ducasse in 1926. However, Orledge has included a realisation of a sketch for the ‘Prelude’, not included in the published score. The ‘Fanfare’ seems to have been revised, but the ‘Sleep of King Lear’ has remained largely as written. ‘The Death of Cordelia’ has been ‘worked up’ from another sketch. The entire piano suite makes a good addition to the corpus of Shakespearian music. Hopefully it will get more outings in the recital room than the orchestral version does on CD or in the concert hall.

The two final pieces on this CD seem a little uncharacteristic. Liszt’s pianism here seems to the order of the day. I guess that these are full-blown operatic fantasias (by Orledge) on what is left of Debussy’s unfinished operas The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher.
The two pieces recorded here are Un jour affreux avec le Diable dans le beffroi (‘A Dreadful Day with the Devil in the Belfry’) and A Night in the House of Usher. Apart from the ‘devilish’ technical difficulties of former piece, there is much that is ‘demonic’ about this music. The Dreadful Day also incorporates a narrated text (in French). To me this is the least successful piece on this CD: it sounds contrived and overtly melodramatic. On the other hand, A Night in the House of Usher uses some of the highlights of Debussy’s score to create this operatic paraphrase. This includes the dramatic ‘Fall.’ I am not sure that either of these pieces will capture the public’s imagination.
The piano playing by Nicolas Horvath is brilliant, imaginative and convincing throughout this performance. And let’s not forget the two perfectly spoken narrations by Florient Azoulay. The liner notes feature a long and just occasionally convoluted essay by Robert Orledge which describes the ‘archaeological’ processes of recovering this music. It is essential reading for any listener who wishes to contextualise the diverse works included on this CD. Also included in the script are various quotations from several authors supporting the concept of reconstructing, revising, rewriting and the realisation of unfinished or sketched works of art. The booklet is well illustrated with several black and white photographs.

I would suggest a slow exploration of this music. Please do not sit down and through-listen. Take each section or work at a time. It may help to have a biography or musical study of the composer close at hand. I listened to these ‘recovered’ pieces on two occasions. They begin to reveal their magic slowly. It may be one of those CDs that the reviewer (and the listener) needs to revisit in the coming months and years. One thing is for certain – this is essential listening for all Debussy enthusiasts who see beyond the one or two potboilers normally presented to the listening public.

John France

Préludes Oubliés: L’Enfant prodigue (1884, revised 1907–08) (version for piano) [02:46]
Rodrigue et Chimène (1890–93) (version for piano) [04:58]
Préludes, Book 1, No. 8. La Fille au cheveux de lin (first version in B flat major, 1907) [00:46]
Prélude à l’Histoire de Tristan’ (1907, completed 2011) (version for piano) [04:26]
Préludes, Book 2 – No. 5. Bruyères (first version, 1912) [03:47]
Toomai des éléphants (1913, completed 2006) (new edition) [06:33]
Petite Valse (c.1915, completed 2006) [02:07]
Fêtes Galantes: Tableau 1 – Les Masques (commencement) (1915, completed 2006) [07:08]
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien: Act 3: Le Concile des faux dieux: La Passion (unused movement, first draft) (1911, completed 2014) [04:28]
No-Ja-Li (Le Palais du Silence): Chinese ballet in one act (eight scenes) (version with narration) (1914, completed 2005/2014) Text: George de Feure (1868–1943) [17:17]
Le Roi Lear (1904–08, completed 2004/2018) 1. Prélude [03:52], 2. Fanfare [00:58], 3. Le Sommeil de Lear [03:36], 4. La Mort de Cordélia [03:36]
Un Jour Affreux avec le Diable Dans le Beffroi (version with narration) (1902–03, transcribed 2018) Text: Robert Orledge (b. 1948) from a libretto by Stephen Wyatt (b. 1948) [11:37]
A Night in the House of Usher (1915–17, transcribed 2010) [06:30]

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