Debussy As Close as We Can Get

I had all but resolved to move on from reviewing recordings honoring the 2018 centenaries of Claude Debussy’s death and Leonard Bernstein’s birth when word arrived of Warner Classic’s 10-CD bargain box, Debussy: Ses Premiers Interprètes / His First Performers. This set’s contents are so important that I want to give Debussy lovers a heads-up so that they can either make room for it in their holiday self-gift basket, give friends ample notice for what they’d like to be playing when 2019 rolls around, or start streaming immediately.

Some of the performers in this set not only knew Debussy personally, but also gave world premieres of his works. The rest set definitive standards of Debussy performance and interpretation. Theirs are the benchmark recordings which every conductor, and ever performer worth their fingers or vocal cords, has attempted to match or surpass.

The set’s contents are divided into 5 categories: Piano (CDs 1 and 2), Chamber Music (CD 3), Orchestral Music (CDs 3–6), Songs (CD 7), and Opera (CDs 8–10). While there are no surprises here for those already knowledgeable in matters Debussy, the fact that most selections were newly remastered in 2018 gives potential cause for rejoicing. (More on that below.)

The CD opens with several essential piano recordings, Debussy’s own “La Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes, recorded on a Welte piano roll in 1913, and Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes’s 1930 recording of Poissons d’Or, which Debussy dedicated to him. These, along with a 1938 recording (in French) of Viñes speaking about Debussy and another of him playing, in 1929, the same “La Soirée dans Grenade” that Debussy imprinted on a piano roll, have all been newly remastered.

The names of the other Debussy pianists in the set—Alfred Cortot, Marguerite Long, Walter Gieseking, and Marcelle Meyer—come as no surprise. Nor do the recordings of Quatour Calvert or duos by Jacques Thibaud and Cortot. As for orchestral works, it’s essential to note that one of the violists in the orchestra that gave the world premiere of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 – a young man named Pierre Monteux—went on to conduct the first performance of Jeux in 1913. Forty-two years later, he recorded Debussy’s Nocturnes for RCA Living Stereo. Also in the set are Monteux’s priceless live 1955 recording of Jeux and 1963 recording of Images for Orchestra.

Mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori and pianist Marcelle Meyer visited Debussy just five months short of his death, and performed his Fêtes Galantes for him. Toward the end of Bathori’s career, as she was in decline, she recorded a number of Debussy sides, accompanying herself at the piano.

British sopranos Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte were Debussy’s first and second Mélisandes—both coached with the composer. While Garden actually recorded several sides with Debussy himself at the piano, including a brief excerpt from the opera and three songs from the 2nd version of Ariettes oubliées which are included in the set, the exquisite Teyte took until 1936, when she was 48, to team up with Cortot to make the first of many incomparable Debussy recordings.

Endless debates have been launched over whether Bathori’s style—relatively strict tempo and minimal inflection—or Teyte’s far freer approach and famed downward portamento represents what Debussy expected. You can hear Teyte’s Fêtes Galantes, 1st book from 1936 and Bathori’s Fêtes Galantes, 2nd book from 1929 and try to figure it out. Was Bathori’s performance compromised by her age—she was close to 52—and the fact that she was accompanying herself, or had Teyte (slightly younger, at 48, but in prime voice) grown more idiosyncratic with the passage of time? Did Debussy, who notoriously trashed performances by most of his interpreters save for those by his friend, conductor Désiré-émile Inghelbrecht, appreciate both women for the intimacy and emotional truth they shared, and ignore the rest? Who knows.

There is a downside to this set, which on the new vocal remasters registers as extra body and weight in the lower octaves at the expense of light on top. While there is no question that Warner’s new remasterings trump the ringing versions heard on Aeon’s ground-breaking 3-CD set, Album Debussy: Le compositeur et son interprètes, they register as distinct second choices when compared to Marston Records’ sets of recordings by Bathori and Claire Croiza, and Naxos Historical’s Teyte issues that were also mastered by Ward Marston. Listen, for example, to the exquisite blend of light and dark in Teyte’s voice on the Marston masters, and the magical chime of Cortot’s distantly recorded piano, and note how their sheen is diminished on Warner’s latest remasterings.

Having said that, you do not want to be without this set. At last, for example, Warner has remastered Roger Désormière’s treasurable complete recording of Pelléas et Melisande, as well as the earlier excerpts from Piero Coppola and George Truc, and enabled us to hear the true Debussy style. Croiza, Charles Panzéra, Vanni-Marcoux, Irène Joachim, Jacques Jansen and others were singers for whom the classic French approach to vocal music was second nature. There’s a refinement here, along with an attention to words and an honoring of authentic French nasality and inflection, that is hard to come by in today’s more homogenized, pan-national approach to music.

If you do not know these recordings, this is an opportunity not to be missed. For those loath to acquiring more CDs, you can also stream the album in 16/44.1 on Tidal and Qobuz, and even compare it to the Aeon set, which streams in 24/44.1.

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