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Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy – Musical Tributes to Debussy
Joint Composition
Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) [31:32]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922) [19:38]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920/1947) [9:09]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Le Tombeau de Claude DebussyHomenaje (version for guitar) (1920) [3:18]
rec. 2017-2020
NAXOS 8.573935 [63:44]

This remarkable disc not only presents Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy but includes three spin-offs from that project. Let me explain. Debussy died on 25 March 1918. Two years later, Henry Prunières (1886-1942), the director of the French journal La Revue Musicale, commissioned a joint memorial volume for the composer. He approached the great and good of European music, and asked for a specially written contribution. Ten composers responded with short works that balanced a celebration of Debussy’s musical achievement with each contributor’s individual style. A glance at the track listings shows a wide range of age and aesthetic. Paul Dukas, 55 years old, was the senior contributor, whilst the Englishman Eugene Goossens, at 27, was the youngest. Most of them had made their names before the Great War; some were just about to become successful.

Best recalled for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Paul Dukas wrote several engaging works for the piano, including a notable Sonata. His music traverses a wide stylistic range; Romanticism, Modernism and Impressionism are apparent in his work. La Plainte, au loin, du Faune (Lament from afar, of the faun) evokes Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The music is dense and numinous, with some foretelling of his pupil Olivier Messiaen’s “harmonic complexities”. Here, the Faun truly does lament his creator, Debussy.

Manuel de Falla’s elegiac Homenaje was written for guitar. A lugubrious piece, it uses the habanera rhythm, and includes nods towards Debussy’s Iberia. It is a masterclass in subtle chords, scale, arpeggios and dynamics for this instrument. The composer subsequently made versions for piano solo and orchestra.

The longest work in Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy is Florent Schmitt’s À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda. The latter part of the title translates as “Pan leaned on his elbows deep in the Lunar wheat fields”. There is stylistic variety here; Romanticism, post Wagnerism and Impressionism contribute to this memorable piece. Clearly, Pan alludes to Debussy’s Faun. The French critic Émile Vuillermoz (1878-1960) declared that this piece “is the only truly lyrical cry of farewell in the entire collection, the only sob that has not been too quickly stifled”. Schmitt later orchestrated this piece as the first number in his Mirages, Op 70.

The only vocal work in this collection is Erik Satie’s À la mémoire de Claude Debussy. It is “in memory of an admiring and sweet friendship of thirty years”. Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine’s (1790–1869) text, Que me font ces vallons (What are these valleys, these palaces, these cottages doing to me?) is a short but deeply felt elegy. The song lasts less than a minute.

Gian Francesco Malipiero left Italy in 1913 to work in Paris. He was fascinated by Debussy’s music. His Hommage à Claude Debussy: Lento echoes the dead composer’s La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) with its archaic Gregorian chant “giving the impression of sovereign majesty and greatness”.

This is followed by the most modern-sounding piece in the collection. The Fragment from Symphonies of Wind Instruments is less than a 1½ minute long. This is a piano reduction of that work’s final choral. Naxos have included a complete recording of the orchestral version (23 woodwinds) as a part of this package. It is a composition that I have not (consciously) heard before. The liner notes include an overview of the Symphonies: “Folk elements, abstract Cubist episodes and jazz-influenced dance rhythms all are merged into little less than ten minutes, presenting a fascinating kaleidoscope of ever-changing moods and colours.” The orchestral work was derided at its premiere in London on 10 June 1921. We have learned a lot since then!

The only Englishman represented in the project was Eugene Goossens. His Hommage à Debussy, Op 28 combines two sections: a dissonant Bergian prelude followed by a short impressionistic postlude. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.

Béla Bartók’s Sostenuto, rubato features a unison melody supported by shimmering chords which balances impressionism with an indigenous cradle song. It was later included as the seventh piece in his Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op 20, BB 83.

One of the recurring features of Claude Debussy’s music are references to Greek mythology. Albert Roussel’s L’accueil des muses (The Muses’ Welcome) is designed as a musical ascent of Mount Parnassus, the seat of Euterpe and her fellow goddesses. Much of this piece reflects grief, but towards the close there is a definite sense of optimism.

I have always struggled with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. Compared to so much of his music, this is an acerbic piece that reflects his reaction to the First World War. The first movement was included in the memorial volume. The other two were added in 1922. The liner notes explain: “the ultra-transparent writing for two melodic instruments corresponds with Debussy’s last works, and especially his late sonatas for violin and cello, where he gave up his trademark impressionistic multicoloured spectrum in favour of concentrated neo-Classical clarity.” The entire work is given a splendid performance here.

The pianist Tomer Lev was the driving force behind this realisation of Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy. He has provided exceptionally detailed liner notes: not only context but brief overviews of the composers, and an informed discussion about each piece. The usual biographies of the performers are included. The text is presented in English and French.

Of interest is the volume’s cover, an illustration by the Post-Impressionist painter Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Part of this is printed on the front cover of the liner notes, and the full picture is included in the text.
The sound quality is ideal. It allows listeners to appreciate the subtle sonorities of each piece.

Finally, it should be noted that Tomer Lev has rearranged the order of the pieces to that of the original score. In an essay for The Gramophone (December 2020), he wrote: “Le Tombeau is, to all practical purposes, well-nigh unperformable. Having not been given any precise criteria to write to, the composers had let their imaginations run free, and composed for a dizzying variety of instrumentations.” What has resulted from Lev’s realisation is an often beautiful and always interesting piece of musical archaeology. For me, the obvious diversity becomes a major strength rather than a dilemma.

John France
Details of the joint composition
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
La plainte, au loin, du faune… [4:55]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Homenaje (version for piano) [3:07]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda (No 1 from Mirages, Op 70) [7:36]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: En souvenir d’une admirative et douce amitié de trente ans: Que me font ces vallons [0:57]
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973)
Hommage à Claude Debussy: Lento [2:54]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Fragment des symphonies d’instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy [1:22]
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962)
Hommage à Debussy, Op 28 [3:18]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sostenuto, rubato (No 7 from Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op 20, BB 83) [2:30]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
L’accueil des muses ‘In memoriam Debussy’ [4:43]
Tomer Lev (piano), Sharon Rostorf-Zamir (soprano), Janna Gandelman (violin), Dmitry Yablonsky (cello), Ruben Seroussi (guitar), Buchmann-Mehta Symphony Orchestra, Tel Aviv University/Zeev Dorman

Recording venue and dates
Clairmont Hall, Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University, Israel, 20 November 2017 (de Falla), 30 January 2018 (Stravinsky), 5 April 2018 (Ravel), 20 March 2020 and 24 April 2020 (Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy)

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