Saturday, February 17, 2018

Debussy’s Concert Music for Voice(s) on Warner

This third dispatch on Warner Classics’ Complete Works 33-CD box set of the music of Claude Debussy takes in two categories in Warner’s own organization of the collection. The seven CDs in this group consist of four devoted to songs, two devoted to choral works, and one “linking” CD that finishes up the songs and begins the choral works. For readers following my account of pianist Malcolm Martineau recording the complete songs of Debussy on four CDs and wondering about the additional space taken by Warner, that space is used for orchestral versions of piano accompaniment, almost all of which were prepared during the composer’s lifetime. The one exception is Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht’s 1949 orchestration of Debussy’s final song, the “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons” (Christmas carol for homeless children).

Because Martineau organized his recordings around his work with specific singers, finding a specific song in his collection is not always an easy matter. Warner has simplified this process by organizing both the songs and the choral works chronologically. As long as the searcher can associate his/her objective in terms of a specific year (and there are several resources to assist that precondition), achieving the goal should be relatively straightforward. In addition, there is almost prodigious diversity in the performances of the songs. Warner has been able to draw upon an abundant archive of past recordings, allowing the listener to enjoy performances by many different singers in any given vocal range accompanied by a generous cross-section of pianists experienced in art song accompaniment.

Nevertheless, I am not sure I would recommend any of the individual discs in the Warner collection for beginning-to-end listening. Debussy clearly had a broad interest in poetry. One might almost say that his interest took in the full breadth of the history of French literature. Nevertheless, chronology (either of the texts or the dates of Debussy’s compositions) is not necessarily a useful path in appreciating the scope of that breadth. Furthermore, my own knowledge of French literature (not to mention the diversity of French art song) is ill-equipped to recommend any possible “listening programs” for this collection. The reader should just be prepared to explore in small doses, eventually finding his/her way to those songs that provide the richest listening experiences.

Where the choral repertoire is concerned, the selections are far more limited. Most of them are given multiple accounts, usually involving changes in instrumentation. There are two world premiere recordings in this genre. One of these is the only recording of the “Chanson des brises” (song of the breezes), setting a text by Louis Bouilhet for soprano, female choir, and four hands on one keyboard. The other is a “first pass” at setting two chansons by Charles d’Orléans for a cappella choir in 1898. Ten years later Debussy would add a third chanson to the set and rethink the other two, resulting in a final version of this collection.

As to the performances, while the choral work tends to be consistently satisfying, the same cannot be said of the solo offerings. Too many of the sopranos come across with a shrillness (particularly when aiming for high pitches) that never seems to sit very well with the words. Others (including at least one for whom French is not her native tongue) shape their intonations around the words with a consistency that is as engaging as it is satisfying. Ultimately, however, the real priority here involves Debussy’s music; and, considering the breadth of this repertoire, the overall treatment is definitely a good one.

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