Monday, January 29, 2018

Debussy’s Instrumental Music on Warner

Last month, when I first started writing about Warner Classics’ Complete Works 33-CD box set of the music of Claude Debussy, I found that I had to explain why there were twelve CDs of the piano music when Warner’s Complete Piano Works box set of performances by Walter Gieseking contained only five CDs. Where the seven CDs of instrumental music in the Complete Works collection are concerned, the tables are slightly turned, but not by very much. The first two CDs of chamber music are pretty much straightforward, since, for the most part, Debussy worked on chamber music either very early or very late in his life as a composer; and the division into two CDs tends to reflect that division of the composer’s attention to the genre.

That leaves five CDs of orchestral works. In this case my point of reference was a Complete Orchestral Works box of nine CDs released by Naxos in February of 2012 with Jun Märkl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon. In this case the difference has to do with the number of selections that were either subsequently orchestrated or rearranged for orchestra. Debussy himself sometimes had a hand in this process, but it is one that is still going strong today. Thus, the Naxos collection includes recent arrangements by composers such as Colin Mathews, who took on all 24 of the piano preludes. In the Warner collection, all arrangements are by Debussy’s contemporaries (although many of them were made after Debussy’s death). (For the record, so to speak, three of the Naxos tracks are included in the Warner collection, including the now-famous-in-its-own-right orchestration of “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque by André Caplet.)

In approaching the orchestral works taken as a whole, focusing particularly on those that are strictly Debussy’s own efforts, I have to confess a continuing bias for Märkl. I appreciate the extent to which this is one conductor’s approach to the body of work and the way in which that approach includes arrangements that reach into the very recent past. Warner, on the other hand, draws upon the extensive EMI library, which means that there is considerable diversity in conductors, ensembles, and soloists; and there are quite a few names (best left unmentioned) that have not left me with very much satisfaction in either recorded or “live” performances.

Nevertheless, I can confess to a personal weakness for André Cluytens, since I first encountered him at a time when I was just beginning to pay attention to conductors, rather than marks on score pages. He is represented on two selections in the Warner collection, the score for the ballet “Jeux,” created for choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, which was first performed in 1913, and the two dances that Debussy composed for cross-strung harp and strings in 1904, with the harp played by Annie Challan. The recordings for these tracks were made in 1963 and 1964. The pieces themselves deserve far more attention than they tend to get; and I was reminded that Pierre Boulez took a particular interest in the score for “Jeux.”

Conductor André Cluytens (photograph by Ron Kroon from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license)

Similarly, where the chamber music is concerned, I have to confess that I have preferences for recordings that were already in my collection. The one exception is the suite of twelve short pieces composed as interludes for the recitation of poems from the collection of erotic poetry by Pierre Louÿs entitled The Songs of Bilitis. Debussy scored these pieces for two flutes, two harps, and celesta; and each one is a minimal gem unto itself. These are performed by members of the Nash Ensemble led by Lionel Friend with the poems recited (in French) by Delphine Seyrig (a French actress whom I, like many others, know only for her performance in the film Last Year at Marienbad).

If my general impression has come off as somewhat lukewarm, I should conclude by saying that I still value the idea of having a single “complete works” resource available for reference purposes; and I suspect that, in future listening, I shall return to these instrumental CDs for more than mere reference!

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