Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Hyperion Concludes its Debussy Songs Project

The wait for the London-based Hyperion label to conclude its project to record the complete songs of Claude Debussy has been a long one. Under the direction of pianist Malcom Martineau, the first volume appeared in February of 2003, but the second did not come out until April of 2012. The wait for the third volume was not as prolonged, since it appeared in October of 2014. The project was finally brought to closure with the release of the fourth and final volume this past Friday, somewhat less that two months prior to the centennial of Debussy’s death this coming March 25.

The primary vocalist on this concluding volume is soprano Lucy Crowe. However, because this volume involves a bit of tying up of loose ends, baritone Christopher Maltman makes a “return” from the first volume to sing the two songs that Debussy collected under the title Nuits blanches (white nights). In addition Jennifer France returns from the third volume to sing the duet “Chanson espagnole” (Spanish song) with Crowe. Without intending to demean Crowe in any way, I found this to be the most ravishing track on the album.

I happen to be a sucker for the art songs that Brahms wrote for two female vocalists. “Chanson espagnole” is in a totally different league; but it is still up there with the best of Brahms’ efforts. I really wish Debussy had written more such duos! The other “guest artist” is harpist Lucy Wakeford, who joins Martineau for the accompaniment in “Flots, palmes, sables” (waves, palms, sands). (Yes, it is a bit out of the ordinary to have both piano and harp providing accompaniment, but there is no faulting Debussy’s keen sense of sonority in his setting of this song!)

As might be guessed, Martineau saved this final album for the last song that Debussy ever wrote. This is the “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons” (Christmas carol for homeless children), which is the antepenultimate entry (L 139) in François Lesure’s catalog of Debussy’s complete works. Debussy wrote this in 1915, when the better part of Europe was being ravaged by World War I. The urgency of Debussy’s rhetoric in this song is so intense that it is likely to cut to the heart of any sensitive listener, including those who cannot easily follow the French text (which was written by Debussy himself). (I could go on a rant about how this song is as relevant today as it was when Debussy wrote it, but that would be overplaying my editorial hand!)

There is much in this entire collection, but particularly this final volume, to motivate our honoring Debussy on that centennial date of March 25.

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