1893 photograph of Debussy at the piano (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
We are now well into the centennial year honoring the death of Claude Debussy on March 25, 2018. Readers may recall that I credited the Hyperion label with putting out the first all-Debussy release of the year, an album consisting entirely of Debussy’s music for solo piano played by Stephen Hough. However, I am embarrassed to confess that, on that occasion, I may have given the impression that it was the only all-Debussy album to be released this past January 5, because this was also the date on which Warner Classics released its impressively comprehensive Complete Works box set of 33 CDs.
Readers know that, when confronted with a collection of this size, I try to fine a logical way in which to take a piecemeal approach to discussing the contents. Fortunately, Warner has ordered the CDs in this box in a way that makes my doing so a relatively straightforward manner. The first eleven CDs are devoted to piano music and are supplemented by the last “bonus” CD, consisting of recordings of Debussy himself at the keyboard. The piano section is then followed by seven CDs of instrumental music, both chamber and orchestral. There are then seven CDs of vocal music, both songs and choral works. The remaining seven CDs are then offer opera and other forms of staged compositions.
Respecting the order of the packaging, I shall begin with the twelve CDs of piano music. This may provoke a wait-a-minute response from those readers who recall that, a little over a month ago, I wrote about Warner having reissued Walter Gieseking’s Complete Piano Works recordings in a five-CD box set. Why is this new release so much larger in scope than Gieseking’s?
The most important reason is that not all of Debussy’s piano compositions were written for solo piano. Back in 1991 Dover publications put out two Debussy volumes both entitled Works for Piano Four Hands and Two Pianos. These involve both original compositions and transcriptions of both choral and instrumental music. However, the Dover collection is far from comprehensive in these two categories, meaning that there were selections that I did not even know by name, let alone through past experiences in either listening or playing.
Furthermore, the Warner collection includes a prodigious number of transcriptions in all three of these categories (solo, four-hand, and two-piano). Some of these are transcriptions of Debussy’s music by others, such as André Caplet and Maurice Ravel. However, there is also an impressive number of transcriptions of other composers made by Debussy, including (wait for it) one for two pianos of the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Flying Dutchman! (Those not familiar with Debussy’s biography may be surprised to learn that he visited Bayreuth twice, first in 1888 and then in the following year. Finally, even in the solo domain, this collection includes pieces that had not yet been discovered at the time that Gieseking made his recordings.
Taken as a whole, this extended collection of piano music is more than enough to make Warner’s Complete Works release definitely worth “the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum would have put it), if not more so! I would further submit that, while Warner also released on January 5 a three-CD “sampler” under the title Impressions: The Sound of Debussy, the fact is that anyone who really likes Debussy’s piano music will only be satisfied with the full extent of the complete collection. As might be guessed, most of the recordings in that section drew upon material that was already in the Warner catalog. Thus, one will encounter the names of quite a few familiar pianists; and I, for one, prefer that diversity to trying to account for everything with one pianist taking on the full scope.
Then, of course, there are the recordings of Debussy himself. Most of that CD comes from piano rolls recorded through Welte technology. Those rolls were then played back for audio recording through a Welte instrument built in 1923 and restored in 1991. What is most striking about these tracks is the breadth of dynamic range supported by the technology and Debussy’s exercise of that full breadth. This is most evident in the recording of “La Cathédrale engloutie” (the submerged cathedral), the tenth prelude in Debussy’s first book of twelve. It is easy to imagine that Debussy himself wanted to see how far he could push the technology, and the result is as chillingly awesome as any performance one is likely to encounter one hundred years later.
This CD also includes four 78 RPM recordings of Debussy accompanying soprano Mary Garden. She sings three of the songs, all with texts by Paul Verlaine, from Ariettes oubliées (forgotten songs), as well as a brief solo from the third act of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. (Garden performed the role of Mélisande when this opera was first presented.) One has to be forgiving of the degraded sound quality on these tracks, but restoration can only go so far. What matters most is the secure sense of pitch and phrasing that Garden brought to her performances of Debussy, making these recordings well worth study by both aspiring and mature sopranos today.