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Classical 12/08/2001

Debussy, a Composer Unlike Any Before or After Him

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NY (The New York Times) - Claude Debussy is the focus of the Bard Music Festval this summer. As a backdrop, the Times classical music critics pick favorite Debussy recordings.

CENTURY later, the originality of the music of Claude Debussy is clear. But in an era when the likes of Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were trumpeting their innovations, Debussy insinuated his, wrapping them in the most sensuous of surfaces. Not surprisingly, therefore, they tended to be undervalued by the larger public if not by later composers.

Now that the seeming giants around him have receded into the more measured perspective of history, Debussy stands tall among them, seeming very much a composer for this time. Or so, at any rate, Leon Botstein, the conductor and the founding artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, seems to think.

Over the next two weekends, the festival, in its 12th outing at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is to explore "Debussy and His World," with the usual mix of discussions, concerts and film screenings. Although some critics find the Impressionist label misleading as applied to Debussy, the place of paintings in his world will loom large in those discussions.

"By cultivating a way of seeing, Debussy achieved a translucent, suggestive and complex musical language of feeling whose novel character may have derived from visual models," Mr. Botstein writes in his contribution to the typically copious festival book, edited by Jane F. Fulcher and published by Princeton University Press. Next Friday, Robert Martin, a cellist and the co-artistic director of the festival, presides over a daylong symposium, "Literature and Painting in Fin-de-Siècle Paris."

In the spirit of the festivities, the classical music critics of The New York Times decided to provide a backdrop of sorts by choosing favorites from the Debussy recordings available (insofar as such a thing can be determined in the market's current, chaotic state).

CD's range in price from $10 to $15 for one CD, $15 to $20 for a two-CD set and $30 to $40 for three- and four-CD collections. (An introduction appears on Page 1 of Weekend.)

Anthony Tommasini

PIANO WORKS. Walter Gieseking, pianist (EMI Classics 5 65855 2; four CD's).

STRING QUARTET. Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 445 509-2; with Ravel's Quartet).

"LE MARTYRE DE ST. SÉBASTIEN." New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical SMK 60596).

"PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE." George Shirley, Elisabeth Soderstrom, Donald McIntyre; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Sony Classical SM3K 47265; three CD's).

"PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE." Richard Stilwell, Frederica von Stade, José van Dam; Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan (EMI Classics 5 67168 2; three CD's).

Debussy was arguably the most radical composer of the 20th century. After almost 300 years of propulsive and rigorous Germanic music, along came Debussy with his rhythmically stilled, harmonically ambiguous works. Music was never the same.

Yet Debussy was also a product of his culture. This fact has led to the idea that French performers steeped from birth in the national sensibility for color and refinement have an advantage when performing Debussy. Actually, French performers sometimes overemphasize Debussy's Frenchness. Some important outsiders have been better at revealing Debussy the radical, and making clear the non-French influences in his music.

The great German-born pianist Walter Gieseking, for one. He did more to bring Debussy's piano music to the larger public in the years after World War II than any French musician. A four-disc set offers Gieseking from the 1950's in the complete Debussy piano works. These performances remain the standard against which all others are measured. Gieseking's playing has luscious colorings and suppleness, but also rippling clarity, structural coherence, rhythmic bite, when called for, and a slightly cool expressivity that never allows the music to seem cute, even in pieces like "Golliwogg's Cakewalk."

For similar reasons, I admire the Emerson String Quartet's 1986 recording of Debussy's String Quartet. These exciting American players bring youthful energy and analytic precision to their account, as well as unsentimental lyricism in the wistful slow movement.

There have been more restrained performances of "Le Martyre de St. Sébastien" than Leonard Bernstein's with the New York Philharmonic from 1962, but it's hard to resist the cinematic vitality of his account. At its premiere in 1911, this dramatic work, with a text by Gabriele d'Annunzio, combined orchestral and vocal music, spoken dialogue, mime and dancing, and lasted five hours. It was a dismal failure.

For his concert performance, Bernstein adapted the text himself, apportioning roles to a narrator (the actor Fritz Weaver), the saint (the actress Felicia Montealegre, who was Bernstein's wife) and a roster of vocal soloists headed by the sweet- voiced soprano Adele Addison. You can understand the appeal of the story to Bernstein, who struggled with his sexuality: entranced by the beauty of the young Christian convert Sebastian, the Roman emperor Diocletian makes advances. Rebuffed, he orders Sebastian killed with arrows. Though the actors are somewhat histrionic, Bernstein's account of the score is pungent, shimmeringly beautiful and full of imagination.

Debussy's opera "Pelléas et Mélisande" is both one of the greatest operas ever and a sort of anti-opera, which contravened accepted notions of dramatic pacing and narrative definition. There are two essential recordings. The landmark 1970 account by Pierre Boulez (yes, a Frenchman, but also a modernist) reveals the opera's path-breaking qualities. But I slightly prefer Herbert von Karajan's 1978 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, an American Pelléas (Richard Stilwell) and Mélisande (Frederica von Stade, in her prime) and a Belgian Golaud (the great José van Dam). Debussy had a love-hate attitude toward Wagner. Listen to Karajan's spacious, serene and weighty performance, and you will hear why "Pelléas" would have been impossible without "Parsifal" as a model.

Bernard Holland

ORCHESTRAL WORKS. Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon 435 766- 2, 439 896-2).

STRING QUARTET. Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 445 509-2; with Ravel's Quartet).

"PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE." Richard Stilwell, Frederica von Stade, José van Dam; Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan (EMI Classics 5 67168 2; three CD's).

"DANSE SACRÉE ET DANSE PROFANE." Vera Badings, harpist; Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink (Philips 438 742-2; two CD's).

PIANO WORKS. Walter Gieseking, pianist (EMI Classics 5 65855 2; four CD's).

One of the happy issues of Pierre Boulez's advancing years has been a body of Debussy's music recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. Mr. Boulez grasps the elegance and sensuousness of sound (listen to his own recent compositions) but lets neither get out of hand. Understood here are the meticulous workings and mysterious organizing principles that make Debussy tower over his reputation as an exotic. "Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune," as close to perfection as any piece of music could be, and the undervalued "Images" for orchestra occupy one release; "La Mer," "Nocturnes," "Jeux" and the Rhapsody for Clarinet (with Franklin Cohen) are on the other.

Debussy's G minor String Quartet, umbilically connected to Ravel's in F, features a slow movement of unassailable, heartbreaking dignity. The Emerson String Quartet plays it with the right restraint and, yes, with the Ravel attached.

For the opera "Pelléas et Mélisande," I fall back on Herbert von Karajan with Richard Stillwell and Frederica von Stade. Karajan makes little pretense about putting his orchestra ahead of his singers, but there is a satisfying consistency here.

Elsewhere, I have searched the record bins of my local music store for a brief, unsung Debussy masterpiece, the "Sacred and Profane Dances" for harp and strings, but found it only in a catch-all reprint from Philips, with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Music writers throw around the word "haunting," and these two movements are simply that.

The most satisfying recent recordings of the piano music are by Paul Crossley for Sony, but these have evidently drifted out of print. So many pianists, from Michelangeli to Paul Jacobs, have discerned the presence of Liszt in the Préludes, "Images," Études and suites, yet more often than not, they have confused liberality of spirit with liberality of movement. Debussy's precise notation, his extreme care with exact rhythmic values and tempo indications — indeed, his hidden controls over music that seems to float on air — require a scrupulosity of phrase closer to Mozart than to Scriabin. The fabled Walter Gieseking LP recordings for Columbia and Angel have returned complete in an EMI Classics set. Once praised and more recently condemned for his pedal effects, Gieseking had a more important asset: an almost Classical respect for musical sentence structure. Mr. Crossley has it, too.

Allan Kozinn

ORCHESTRAL WORKS. Montreal Symphony, conducted by Charles Dutoit (Decca 460 217-2; two CD's).

PRÉLUDES, BOOKS 1 AND 2. Paul Jacobs, pianist (Nonesuch 9 73031-2; two CD's).

ÉTUDES (12), "SUITE BERGAM ASQUE." Garrick Ohlsson, pianist (Arabesque Z6601).

STRING QUARTET. Juilliard String Quartet (Sony Classical SMK 62708; with Haydn's "Frog" Quartet and Verdi's Quartet).

Listening to a stack of Debussy recordings is a refreshing reminder of the breadth of this composer's expressive and descriptive style, and the degree to which that style skirts the Impressionist label that is normally slapped on it. Like all such labels, Impressionism is shorthand, and it can be useful: it places the music in a historical context and it concisely describes music that is awash in painterly chromaticism and largely liberated from the strictures of Classical form. Still, works like "La Mer" and "Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune," often adduced as Impressionist masterpieces, can also be heard in a different way. In place of the hazy pointillism of Impressionist art, to which the music is often likened, one hears subtle gradations of color and carefully considered textures that yield an almost photographic clarity — exactly the opposite of Impressionism as it is usually understood.

Great recordings of those two works are plentiful, but for sweep, orchestral heft and sheer sonic beauty, few recent performances match those of Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony. Mr. Dutoit has made his way through most of Debussy's orchestral works over the last 15 years, and Decca's compilation offers a good overview of both the Debussy canon and Mr. Dutoit's best work. His account of "La Mer" has both the power and the shimmer to make this seascape sound three-dimensional; and the Spanish rhythms and timbres in "Ibéria" are especially vital. The set also offers the opportunity to become acquainted with the lesser-known symphonic fragments from "Le Martyre de St. Sébastien."

Paul Jacobs's recordings of the "Préludes" were prized for their balance of soulfulness and Gallic coolness when they were released in 1978, and they have stood up remarkably well over the years. There are times — in "Les Sons et les Parfums Tournent Dans l'Air du Soir" or "La Cathédrale Engloutie," for example — when he evokes an almost orchestral power, yet there is great delicacy in these readings as well.

Garrick Ohlsson examines the more vigorous side of Debussy's piano writing in his sparkling 1988 recording of the "Études" and fills out the disc with a bright-hued, sensual reading of the "Suite Bergam asque." And of the many accounts of the String Quartet to be found, the Juilliard Quartet's 1970 recording emphasizes the work's nervous energy and sharp edges but throws a warm light on its more ruminative moments. The disc also gets points for its unconventional program: Haydn and Verdi quartets instead of the usual Ravel.

Anne Midgette

"PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE." Jacques Jansen, Victoria de los Angeles, Gérard Souzay; Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, conducted by André Cluytens (Testament SBT 3051; three CD's).

"MÉLODIES." Elly Ameling, Mady Mesplé, Frederica von Stade, Gérard Souzay; Dalton Baldwin, pianist (EMI Classics 64095; three CD's).

CHAMBER WORKS. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (Delos DE 3167; three CD's).

ÉTUDES (12). Mitsuko Uchida, pianist (Philips 422 412-2).

PRÉLUDES, BOOKS 1 AND 2. Walter Gieseking, pianist (EMI Classics 5 67262 2).

DEBUSSY was of no school, followed no dogma, had no successors. His music is eminently his own. People label it Impressionist for its clarity, its radiant light, its ephemeral snatches of melody; but Debussy saw himself as a Symbolist, and his work also creates a distinctive half dream world of its own through the use of rich color and (musical) language: a world with the power to transform. By any name, his influence permeated the music that followed him, from that of Arnold Schoenberg to that of Pierre Boulez (whose Debussy recordings capture better than any other the luminous clarity that leads people to call Debussy an Impressionist in the first place).

"Pelléas et Mélisande" is the quintessential Symbolist opera, a setting of a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. You could do a list devoted simply to great "Pelléas" recordings, like the 1978 EMI set in which Herbert von Karajan luxuriates in the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. But André Cluytens's 1956 document, mono though it is, has two factors in its favor: it is idiomatically French, and you can drink the voices. Anyone who thinks French singing is about small, tight sounds needs to hear Gérard Souzay's breathtaking, enveloping Golaud or Pierre Froumenty's Arkel or Jeannine Collard as a radiant Geneviève.

Jacques Jansen, the Pelléas in Roger Désormière's classic (and first complete) recording of the opera 15 years earlier, is a little rough around the edges. But few can touch Victoria de los Angeles, the one nonnative in the cast, as an unusual, idiosyncratic and sheerly beautiful Mélisande; this was supposedly her favorite role, although she never sang it onstage. Leading the French Radio Orchestra, Cluytens creates an environment as dense and profound as Maeterlinck's forest but with a kind of joyful lushness.

Being a vocal maven, I have to cite a recording of Debussy's songs, and there are none around that I like better than the complete set of "Mé lodies," with singers able to give the delicate filigree of the text-settings their due: Mr. Souzay, again, joined by others, including Elly Ameling and Frederica von Stade.

Another wonderful compendium is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's set: a cornucopia of everything from a piano trio the composer wrote when he was 17 and off tutoring the children of Nadezhda von Meck (Tchaikovsky's patron) to the three glorious sonatas from the end of his life. Recorded live over a four-year period, the three discs are studded with wonderful moments, familiar (the Violin Sonata, for example, in which Ani Kavafian and Anne- Marie McDermott avoid gratuitous virtuosity in favor of a gentleness that does better justice to the spirit of the music) as well as unusual (the "Première Rapsodie" and "Petite Pièce" of 1910, given red-carpet treatment by David Shifrin and André Watts).

A personal choice of best recordings doesn't necessarily do justice to the full scope of the composer's work.

So this list egregiously neglects the orchestral repertory in favor of two acknowledged classics: the Uchida Études and the Gieseking Préludes. The Études, the composer's penultimate compositions, are difficult, mercurial and defiantly outré, qualities Mitsuko Uchida emphasizes in her fluid, translucent reading, which sounds (as it should) like someone moving in a new and different atmosphere: music for a new century, be it the 20th or the 21st. Walter Gieseking's Préludes hardly need an introduction: widely held to be among the great recordings of the 20th century, light of touch, deep in understanding, they merit that questionable accolade "definitive."

Paul Griffiths

ORCHESTRAL WORKS. New Philharmonia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Sony Classical SM2K 68327; two CD's).

ORCHESTRAL WORKS. New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical SMK 47546).

PRÉLUDES, BOOKS 1 AND 2; PIANO WORKS. Youri Egorov, pianist (EMI Classics for Pleasure 4805).

ÉTUDES (12). Mitsuko Uchida, pianist (Philips 422 412-2).  

Debussy'S sea was the ocean inside his own head: always in movement and therefore never predictable, passionate and thoughtful in equal measure, treacherous. "La Mer," his portrait of the sea, expresses all those qualities, and at the same time has them built into its substance, so that it can change radically, depending on who is throwing light on it.

Pierre Boulez's first commercial recording — presented in a two-disc set with other orchestral works — comes from 1966, quite early in his career as an orchestral conductor. At that time, it was widely praised for its clarity and cool, but what most impresses now is the anger, and after that the yearning and the sense of threat. Perhaps despite himself, Mr. Boulez was discovering that with Debussy, as so often, an exquisite sensibility goes along with a taste for violence and even cruelty. The flickering musical images of the middle movement are often luminous, but the conductor's characteristic rhythmic snap makes them also tense and impulsive. A quarter-century later, Mr. Boulez produced a new version (on Deutsche Grammophon) that is better played and much better recorded, but without the zing.

Leonard Bernstein's recording of "La Mer" is close to Mr. Boulez's chronologically — it dates from 1961 — but finds the water temperature very different. The music and the music-making here are dramatic, vivid, sensuous and thrilling. Where Mr. Boulez's expressive effects tend to be momentary — the quick flip that tugs on a nerve — Mr. Bernstein's depend on accumulated drive and earned climax. Again the album is filled with other Debussy pieces.

Youri Egorov's double album of the Préludes, with a few other items tossed in, is a kind of miracle. Egorov is spectacularly dexterous, colorful and weightless: there are pieces — like the First Prélude, "Danseuses de Delphes" — that sound as if they were being created out of light and air. In others, like "La Puerta del Vino," the sound is rich and slithery. Still others — "Brouillards," "Les Tierces Alternées" — have their harmonic strangeness fully brought out by the stillness of the playing.

Another wonderful choice for this music — Zoltan Kocsis's recording — was ridiculously deleted by Philips almost as soon as it had been released, but the same company has at least held on to the treasure it has in Mitsuko Uchida's version of the Études. Quite unlike Egorov's, her piano sound is rich and full, though she finds in it the potential for extraordinary virtuosity ("Pour les Huit Doigts") and for a poetry of sudden change not so distant from Mr. Boulez's at the same age ("Pour les Quartes"). This is a recording that stays fresh and exciting.

What else? It would be impossible to do without a version of "Pelléas et Mélisande." But which? In the case of the composer's second-largest work, the score he wrote for D'Annunzio's religious-erotic pageant "Le Martyre de St. Sébastien," the choice is clearer — or would be, if Charles Munch's old RCA account, which so well breathes with the music, searing and uncanny, were reissued.

James R. Oestreich

"LA MER." Boston Symphony, conducted by Charles Munch (RCA Victor 09026-61500-2; with Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3 and Ibert's "Escales").

ORCHESTRAL WORKS. Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon 435 766- 2, 439 896-2).

PRÉLUDES, BOOKS 1 AND 2. Krystian Zimerman, pianist (Deutsche Grammophon 435 773-2; two CD's).

CHAMBER WORKS. Sigiswald, Veronica, Sara, Wieland, Barthold and Piet Kuijken, instrumentalists; Sophie Hallynck, harpist (Arcana A 303).

ARRANGEMENTS FOR TWO PIANOS. Daniel Blumenthal and Robert Groslot, pianists (Marco Polo 8.223378).

As pleasant as it is to celebrate recent Debussy successes, it is hard not to lament the neglect of past masters in a desultory CD market.

Roger Désormière's recording of "La Mer" runs like a leitmotif through "Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations," a book just published by Bruno Monsaingeon. Richter, newly revealed as a record reviewer, and a trenchant one, calls that recording "the most beautiful in the whole history of the gramophone." Yet Americans will find Désormière listed in the latest Schwann Artist catalog (despite false clues) only for two discs of Tchaikovsky ballet music.

Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch are sadly underrepresented. Or dubiously represented: Monteux appears briefly in "Debussy for Daydreaming," from Philips; Munch, in "Debussy for Relaxation," from RCA. (As for "Tune Your Brain With Debussy," who can tell? Deutsche Grammophon, with what little pride it can still muster, seems too embarrassed by the pandering to list the contents on the outer packaging.)

Munch's 1956 recording of "La Mer" harks back to a time when American orchestras retained great individuality and the Boston Symphony, shaped by Monteux and Munch as well as Serge Koussevitzky, could seem a superb French instrument. Given the pointedness of expression, the overall suavity and reticence only enhanced the power when it was finally unleashed.

The Cleveland Orchestra today brings its own elegance, refinement and incisiveness to bear without reference to nationality, and Pierre Boulez supplies the appropriate accent for Debussy. Whatever energy may have been lost from Mr. Boulez's Sony recordings of these works with the Cleveland Orchestra and the New Philharmonia in the 1960's is paid back in mystery and sheer gorgeousness of sound.

It takes reminding that an ensemble as seamless as Cleveland's in the later recordings is made up of individuals. Joshua Smith, the flutist in the "Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune," provides it eloquently, as does Franklin Cohen, the clarinetist in the "First Rhapsody."

Most of the positive characterizations above could be applied on a different scale to Krystian Zimerman's version of the Préludes for piano. Mr. Zimerman applies pedal coloration richly yet subtly, and Deutsche Grammophon's recording lets a listener bathe in astringent lingering dissonances and piquant ambiguous harmonies.

Since other favorite Debussy recordings — Gieseking's piano works, Uchida's Études, the Emerson's G minor Quartet, Karajan's "Pelléas et Mélisande" — are amply served elsewhere on this page, I conclude with two novelties.

You had to know that the early- music movement, with its aesthetic of period performance, would eventually catch up with Debussy. And here it is: members of the Kuijken family of Belgium, who have labored long and well in the early-music vineyards, provide stimulating accounts of the String Quartet and the three late sonatas.

As so often, the value lies not in any period "authenticity," which is always a chimera, but in opening the mind and the ear to new possibilities of sound and interpretation. What's more, these are excellent musicians, whose work would be treasurable in any case.

A disc of Debussy's two-piano arrangements of works by Gluck, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Wagner, rather insistently performed, is valuable especially for the "Flying Dutchman" Overture, a vivid reminder of Debussy's ambivalent relationship to Wagner. How could matters be otherwise between two figures of such historic originality and indomitable force?

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