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Debussy duets CHAN20228
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Claude Debussy (1867-1918)
Piano Duets
Petite Suite (c1888)
Première Arabesque (c1890, arr. Léon Roques, 1910)
Six Épigraphes antiques (1914-15)
La fille aux cheveux de lin (1910, arr. Léon Roques, 1910)
Andante cantabile (1881)
Ballade slave (1890, arr. Gustave Samazueith, 1928)
Marche ecossaise (1890)
La mer (1905, arr. André Caplet, 1909)
Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier (two pianos and piano duet)
rec. 2021, Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20228 [81]

In some ten years of writing reviews for this site, this must be one of the most frustrating releases that I have ever encountered. Frustrating, first, foremost and principally, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with the release itself. The playing by the two distinguished pianists is faultless, distinctly outlining the notes with a clarity of separation; the recording in the superb acoustic of the Snape Maltings captures the sound ideally; the presentation of the booklet, with extensive and informative notes in three languages by Roger Nichols, is excellent; and the music itself, I need hardly add, is marvellous. No; what is so paradoxically frustrating is something that is not here.

Debussy’s music for two pianists (either seated side-by-side at one keyboard or at two instruments) constitutes the ideal content for a CD, covering as it does the whole spectrum of the composer’s development from his early essays written for Tchaikovsky’s patroness Mme von Meck to his final years during the desolation of the First World War. Some of the pieces are miniatures – the Marche écossaise which he later orchestrated being the most substantial of these – but there are also three more substantial suites. The early-ish Petite Suite is perhaps salon music, with its stylish debts to Delibes and Massenet slightly obvious; but it has a fecundity of charming melody which shows clearly that even then Debussy could command more variety in his music than a simple impressionist mistiness.

The Six épigraphes antiques were drawn from incidental music written for a spoken presentation of poetry by Pierre Louÿs – a sort of fore-runner of Walton’s Façade – which Debussy intended also to orchestrate; but this task was left for Ernest Ansermet to undertake after his death. And then finally came Debussy’s masterpiece for the two-piano repertoire, his bleak and desolate suite written during the First World War and published under the deliberately understated title En blanc et noir – music that is etched in “black and white” indeed. Roger Nichol’s booklet notes clearly appreciate the direction in which the composer was moving – his final lines are “France mobilised for war.” But then this music, the essential music to which Debussy was so inexorably moving, is simply missing.

That is not to say that the purchaser of this very full disc is under-compensated. We are given, in addition to the works specifically written for two pianists and one of the two early Meck pieces, arrangements of La fille aux cheveux de lin and the first of the two Arabesques by Léon Roques which were published in 1910 presumably with the composer’s approval, and a rather pointless transcription of the Ballade slave which was not made until ten years after his death. And then we are also furnished with André Caplet’s two-piano version of La mer. Debussy himself had prepared a version of the score for two pianos in 1905, but four years later he apparently approved Caplet’s version since, according the Roger Nichols, he “came to feel that this [his own version] did not do justice to the textural complexity of the work.” And that is precisely the problem. Such a work as La mer, with its subtle interplay of orchestral colours, simply fails to capture more than half of its function when it is reduced to the single tone of the piano, whether doubled or no. Instead of the polychromatic life of the original, we are reduced to a purely monochrome reproduction – en blanc et noir indeed.

Nevertheless, there might be something to be said for letting us hear Debussy’s music in two-piano and piano-duet arrangements, especially those published during his lifetime, even when we may suspect that reasons of commercial necessity may have prompted their original issue in the days when domestic performance still was necessary, in the ‘dark days’ before the arrival of accurate electronic home sound reproduction. One might have welcomed the appearance, especially in performances and recordings of this quality, of such versions of scores such as the Nocturnes or Images, let alone the ubiquitous afternoon of the faun; but if so, and a second volume of such recordings was intended, this disc should have been clearly entitled Volume One. In the meantime, however, a disc of Debussy Piano Duets (as this is described) is clearly lamed when Debussy’s major work in the form is frustratingly omitted without explanation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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