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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Nocturnes [26:05]
Première Rapsodie [8:04]
Marche Écossaise sur un Thème Populaire [6:37]
Les Soirs Illuminés par L’Ardeur du Charbon (orch. Colin Matthews) [2:34]
La Damoiselle Élue [21:09]
Sergio Castelló López (clarinet)
Sophie Bevan (soprano); Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)
Hallé Choir & Hallé Youth Choir
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 4 April 2019 (live), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Nocturnes); 2018/19, Bridgewater & BBC Studio HQ9, Salford.
HALLÉ CDHLL7552 [64:56]

This is, I think, the third all-Debussy disc from Sr Mark Elder and the Hallé. I enjoyed very much the two earlier releases, both of which included highly successful orchestrations by Colin Matthews of the Préludes for piano (review ~ review). Incidentally, collectors who wish to explore the Matthews orchestrations of the Préludes – and they are well worth hearing by all admirers of Debussy’s music – may like to know that all those orchestrations were subsequently gathered together on a single disc (review). This disc offers another chance to experience the way in which Colin Mathews applies orchestral colours to a Debussy piano piece.

This time he’s turned his attention to a little work which is much less well known than the Préludes for the simple reason that the piano original was lost for many decades and only came to light in late 2001. The work in question is Les Soirs Illuminés par L’Ardeur du Charbon. In his valuable notes Roger Nichols relates the rather charming story behind the piece. It was given by the composer to his coal merchant, Monsieur Tronquin, as a token of gratitude for Tronquin’s success in obtaining some scarce coal supplies for Debussy during the harsh winter of 1916/17. Since the title of the piece translates as ‘Evenings Lit by Burning Coals’ it’s pleasing that the music should have been presented to a coal merchant; in fact, the title is a line from a poem by Baudelaire. Quite what happened to the manuscript thereafter I don’t know but it resurfaced only in November 2001. The music is subtle and elusive and it seems to me that Matthews’ imaginative and refined scoring is very apt indeed. It’s a tiny little piece but I’m delighted that it has been included here.

There are two other short works on the programme. Marche Écossaise sur un Thème Populaire dates from around 1890. In that year an American diplomat, Meredith Read gave Debussy what he thought – erroneously, it has since been established – was a bagpipe tune associated with his Scottish forbears. Debussy used the melody as the basis for a piano duet and he later orchestrated the piece: quite when that was done is unclear but the orchestral score was published in 1911. Roger Nichols tells us that Debussy didn’t think much of his piece but changed his mind when he heard a rehearsal of the orchestral version in 1913. It’s not vintage Debussy but the score is colourful and enjoyable and Elder and his orchestra make a fine case for it.

Première Rapsodie was composed in 1910 as a test piece for clarinettists at the Paris Conservatoire. It may be a taxing piece for students but it appears to present no obstacle to Sergio Castelló López, who is the Hallé’s principal clarinettist. He mixes poetry and agility in this performance and he’s very well supported by his Hallé colleagues.

There are two more substantial scores in Mark Elder’s programme. He offers the three Nocturnes, recorded live in concert. ’Nuages’ is the first music we hear on the CD and it makes a very favourable impression. The orchestra plays the music with great sensitivity and Elder’s scrupulous balancing means that the diaphanous textures are beautifully realised. I’m less convinced by ‘Fêtes’, though the playing is no less admirable. The problem lies in Elder’s tempi, all of which are on the cautious side. In the outer sections I miss the vivacious gaiety that, for example, Stéphane Denève conveys in his fine recording (review). In the central section, which begins with almost inaudible distant trumpets in Elder’s performance, the tempo is, once again, just a bit ponderous. With Denève the marching band has more of a spring in its step. ‘Sirènes’ is much more successful. The combined upper voices of the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir make a wonderfully seductive sound while the orchestra displays great subtlety in depicting Debussy’s delicate tone painting. This is a gently voluptuous performance.

The programme concludes with La Damoiselle Élue. Debussy completed this score in 1888, the same year in which, Roger Nichols reminds us, he journeyed to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal. Debussy’s score bears evidence of the spell cast over him by Wagner’s last opera. La Damoiselle Élue is a setting, in French translation, of verses from The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s very disappointing that neither the text nor a translation is included in the booklet: I would have thought this would be viewed as essential given that the words will be unfamiliar to many listeners. Nonetheless, one can enjoy the performance of music which, in Roger Nichols’ words, “exudes a precarious and rather unsettling sensuality”.

The orchestral opening is exceptionally well played by the Hallé; their sound is refined and they depict Debussy’s colours beautifully. Nowhere is the refinement better illustrated than at 3:36 where we hear a flute solo of virginal purity cushioned by a velvet carpet of hushed string tone. When the female choir enters (4:38) the sound they produce is ideally chaste. The two soloists, Sophie Bevan and Anna Stéphany are highly expressive and the sound that each produces is lovely. La Damoiselle Élue is a fairly early work in which Debussy was still working towards the mastery of his fully-formed style but there’s a great deal to delight the listener, especially in a performance as good as this one. Elder’s reading of the music is ideally sculpted and caringly expressive; the performance bespeaks fastidious rehearsal preparation allied with a fine feel for Debussy’s idiom.

This is an enjoyable and rewarding Debussy collection. With the exception of the Nocturnes it appears that all the recordings were made under studio conditions. Though the recordings were made at different times and in two different locations engineer Steve Portnoi has obtained excellent results which do justice both to the music and to the performances. As I said, the lack of texts for La Damoiselle Élue is a major blemish but, on the other hand, Roger Nichols provides expert notes.

John Quinn

Previous review: Richard Hanlon

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