Thursday, March 1, 2018

Debussy’s Dramatic Works on Warner

This will be my final report on Warner Classics’ Complete Works 33-CD box set of the music of Claude Debussy. Warner has attached a variety of different category labels to the seven CDs that complete their traversal of the complete works, so to speak. However, they all involve Debussy providing music for narrative content in one way or another with some sense of staged production in mind, thus excluding the cantatas that had been classified as choral works.

Most of the compositions in this final “dramatic” category are seldom encountered in performance (or, for that matter, on other recordings). The one exception to this generalization would be the five-act opera Pélleas et Mélisande. I have had the good fortune to experience several different stagings of this opera at both the Metropolitan Opera House and the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, along with at least one (to my recollection) video recording. Because I have found that every staging I have experienced has left me with different thoughts about both the characters and the narrative web in which they are entangled, I find that the primary value of audio recordings is to revive memories of those stages. Given that the opera was completed in 1902 and may very well have been seen in performance by Marcel Proust, I am tempted to say that audio recording facilitates my “search of lost time.”

On the other hand I would also say that an audio recording facilitates paying closer attention to the music itself. In my case that has proven to be its own journey of discovery, which, as far as I am concerned, is still ongoing. Thus, when I wrote, at the end of last year, about the LSO Live recording of a concert conducted by Simon Rattle at the Barbican (presented with “platform staging” by Peter Sellars), I found myself more absorbed in the impact of Richard Wagner on Debussy’s score than I had ever been in the past. The recording included in the Warner collection was made in 1979 in Monte Carlo with Armin Jordan with the vocal and instrumental resources of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Given how much recording technology has been advanced since then, I have to say that I am more disposed to the more recent efforts, particularly when they are based on actual performance situations, such as the one at the Barbican.

However, if one is interested in thoroughness, this final category offers several world premiere recordings. The earliest of these is a fragment setting texts from Théodore de Banville’s 1863 comedy Diane au bois (Diana in the woods), scored for soprano, tenor, and piano. The play involves an encounter between Cupid and Diana (known for her chastity, among other things). Debussy set two arias for Cupid, one for Diana, and a duet for the two of them. These are all relatively short, making for a welcome addition to the rarities-brought-to-light collection.

The second world premiere recording is of the original piano music that Debussy composed in 1904 as incidental music for a performance of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. This consists of only two short pieces, a fanfare and a movement entitled “Le Sommeil de Lear” (Lear’s slumber). About eight years after Debussy’s death, Jean Roger-Ducasse orchestrated them; and they were published by Jobert. That version was included in the Naxos Complete Orchestral Works collection, which had been cited during the discussion of Debussy’s instrumental music.

The final world premiere is one of those “yes … but” items. It consists of five fragments for voices and piano that Debussy had written for “La chute de la maison Usher,” whose score he did not live to complete. As can be guessed from the title, this was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and was conceived as a one-act opera in two scenes.

While this may appeal to those wishing to account for every note that Debussy wrote, those more interested in the opera itself are more likely to turn to the efforts of Robert Orledge to compile a full score and orchestrate it. Those with longer memories may recall that, around the middle of 2016, PAN CLASSICS released an album that included this full score, as well as the other performing edition that Orledge had prepared for “Le diable dans le beffroi,” a one-act setting of Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry.” Thanks to the San Francisco Opera, I had the good fortune to see “La chute de la maison Usher” (twice) and found it highly satisfying, no matter how far it may have departed from “authentic” Debussy.

Authenticity is shown more respect in the final two CDs of this section, which are devoted to Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian). The author of the text, Gabriele D’Annunzio, described the piece as “a Mystery Composed in French Rhythm.” To be fair, one should recognize that D’Annunzio created the work for Ida Rubinstein, a former dancer in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who seems to have believed that there was no such thing as too flamboyant.

Debussy’s music for this occasion was never anything more than “incidental;” and, for better or worse, the recording in the Warner collection seems to have accounted for every damned word that D’Annunzio wrote. When Michael Tilson Thomas decided to present this work with the San Francisco Symphony, he did away with the five actors that D’Annunzio specified, replacing them all with Frederica von Stade narrating a significantly reduced version of the text. In place of actors on a stage, the audience was presented with an elaborate design of projected images, which allowed for more attention to the music and less concern for all of those original words.

Images projected for the San Francisco Symphony performance of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

If this final segment of the entire collection does not do Debussy many favors, it must still be credited for accounting an aspect of his productivity that receives relatively little attention. Ultimately, the virtues of the full collection outweigh any of the shortcomings encountered in these last seven CDs. Even with those shortcomings, however, they still can stand up to the occasional visit every now and then!

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