CLAUDE DEBUSSY: “Complete Orchestral Works” – Orchestre National de Lyon/soloists/Jun Markl – Naxos (9 CDs)

by | Mar 18, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

CLAUDE DEBUSSY: “Complete Orchestral Works” – Orchestre National de Lyon/soloists/Jun Markl [TrackList follows] – Naxos box set, 8.509002 (9 CDs), TT: 9:08:49  ****:
I am a huge fan of Debussy’s music. I’ve never heard anything from the largest scale – such as the opera Pelleas et Melisande – to his shortest and most delicate piano miniatures that I do not enjoy. In fact, it is actually his small scale works, such as the piano works that first earned him the attention of Europe. Most listeners are well aware of Debussy’s whole tone harmonies and a very gossamer-sounding delicacy that pervades his work. When you really listen to the orchestral works, you get a sense of how creative and advanced his view of orchestration was, for its time, as well.
This fully comprehensive collection by the National Orchestre de Lyon and its superb pianist turned director Jun Markl truly provide one stop shopping for all of this wonderful music and in radiant, sensitive performances. I found it easiest to approach my listening to this massive collection in groups. First, the “big and familiar” are – of course – present and provide a good place to start. Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune, La mer, Nocturnes and Images are all here and are quite impressive (as is the slightly less familiar Printemps, here presented in the Henri Busser orchestration). I enjoyed each of these performances and interpretations by Markl a great deal. It is difficult and – to me – not the ultimate point to decide if any of these are a “definitive” performance. I found a couple of things that were not what I am “used to” hearing. For example, I found the closing tempi in La mer to be just a bit scurried and the “Sirenes” in the Nocturnes to be a bit more “present” (loud) than I recall from other recordings and live performances but these are all fine performances of the familiar and Markl, who has conducted all over the world, including opera, and who studied with Bernstein and Ozawa (two plusses in my mind) gets a wonderful sound out of the Lyon musicians who are clearly sympathetic to this music from their own land.
There are also some wonderful and well known works for soloist and orchestra in this set that – again – I know well and was very pleased with. The Premiere Rapsodie for clarinet and orchestra was originally intended as a piece for a conservatory competition; for clarinet with piano. Debussy did the orchestration himself and the work is now a staple for serious clarinet students everywhere. Soloist Paul Meyer, here, is of French birth and has built an international reputation. This work shows off his beautiful tone and liquid technique quite well. The much less known Rapsodie for alto saxophone and orchestra and was written – at first very reluctantly – for an American saxophonist, Mrs. Richard Hall. Debussy was not that familiar with saxophone and, by some accounts, not a fan, either. Yet, the Rapsodie, with its somewhat Moorish sound (Debussy toyed with the idea of calling the work a “Rapsodie mauresque” or “Rapsodie arabe”) illustrates his appreciable skills in writing for new media. In this performance, Frenchman Alexandre Doisy plays beautifully and offers an accurate but not overly mannered performance, as can sometimes happen. The Danses Sacree et Profane for harp and strings may be the most familiar of the works on this solo works disc. Written for the newly modernized fully chromatic harp, this marvelous and somewhat virtuosic work recalls some of Debussy’s own piano writing. Considered a very important solo work by concert harpists, soloist Emmanuel Ceysson gives a beautifully and idiomatic performance. Debussy’s Fantaisie for piano and orchestra deserves to be played more often than it actually is. Structured in two movements, but with the feel of a three movement small concerto, this work was never performed in its final version during the composer’s lifetime. Said to have been inspired by Vincent d’Indy’s Symphony on French Mountain Airs for piano and orchestra (and with whom Debussy was friends), some critics have also said that it bears a resemblance to the Cesar Franck Symphonic Variations. Regardless, most listeners will enjoy this piece that is less well known than the clarinet or the harp works, to be sure. Renowned French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet gives a beautiful performance.
A couple of unusual and pleasant discoveries in this vast collection are Debussy’s only attempt at a symphony, completed in this orchestration by Tony Finno. The Symphony in B-minor is a very brief but attractive work that feels incomplete, due to the notes left behind suggesting that Debussy had sketched at least two more movements, creating a finality that may have resembled more of an orchestral suite than a typical symphony. There is also the inclusion of Debussy’s “symphonic fragments” to his Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. The original, intended as a broad, sacred work for narrator and orchestra and some liturgical dance, was based on a play about the iconic saint by the playwright, d’Annunzio, but mixed metaphorically with a storyline from the Greek Adonis myth. The Parisian archbishop did not like the somewhat erotic undertones nor the blending of Catholic history with Greek mythology and the work was not performed than a couple of times in its original guise. This remains, though, one of Debussy’s lesser known masterworks with some wonderful and characteristic orchestrations.
One of the best reasons to acquire this smartly-packaged and historically significant set is the many, many orchestral transcriptions of Debussy piano works. They are also the works in this set sure to generate the most discussion. Debussy, himself, was not reticent about trying different arrangements of melody and structure in his works – often writing piano works whose central ideas resurfaced in his string quartets or in other piano works. He himself orchestrated (with the help of fellow composer Andre Caplet) La Boite a jouxjoux (The Toybox) and this is a very effective and charming orchestral set in four “tableaux” with a prelude, waltz and epilogue. This collection also contains a massive amount of orchestral arrangements, most notably Children’s Corner, orchestrated by Andre Caplet, Six epigraphes antiques, orchestrated by the composer-conductor Ernest Ansermet, Suite Bergamesque, orchestrated by Gustave Clovez, En blanc et noir by Robin Holloway and the large collection of Books 1 and 2 of the Preludes for Piano, orchestrated by Colin Mathews.
These orchestral arrangements are all interesting and well worth listening to. The discussion might take place along the lines of both the effectiveness as well as the “authenticity” of the results. I personally greatly enjoyed the Caplet Children’s Corner and found it very true to what Debussy himself might have done. I felt similarly about “In Black and White”, done by Robin Holloway. A couple of the transcriptions just didn’t have a strong effect on me. “Six ancient epigraphs” by Ansermet and the Suite bergamesque by Gustave Cloez work better as piano works, to me. The very substantial setting of the Preludes, Books 1 and 2, by Colin Mathews was very intriguing to listen to, containing some of Debussy’s best known music. Mathews is a gifted composer and orchestrator. Some of the preludes in his renditions work very well and retain the Gallic delicacy that I feel is needed. There are other moments where the texture is heavy and thick – very “non-Debussy-” like. I did enjoy it but I think all the orchestrations are practically a topic unto themselves.
I strongly recommend this set for Debussy fans who want some new and undiscovered gems as well for anyone who would like to have all of Debussy’s orchestral output – and then some – in one quite comprehensive, reasonably-priced package and with excellent performances.
TrackList =

Disc 1Prelude a l’apres – midi d’un faune 00:10:122La mer =
No. 1. De l’aube a midi sur la mer 00:09:223.No. 2. Jeux de vagues 00:07:09
4.  No. 3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer 00:08:22
5.  Jeux  00:19:25
6.  Children’s Corner (arr. A. Caplet for orchestra)
I. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum 00:02:46
7.  II. Jimbo’s Lullaby 00:03:42
8.  III. Serenade for the Doll 00:02:51
9.  IV. The Snow is Dancing 00:03:18
10. V. The Little Shepherd 00:02:35
11. VI. Golliwogg’s Cake – Walk 00:03:24
Disc 2
1.  Pelleas et Melisande – symphonie (Pelleas and Melisande Symphony) (arr. M. Constant) 00:25:05
 2.  Nocturnes  = No. 1. Nuages 00:07:22
3.  No. 2. Fetes 00:06:37
4.  No. 3. Sirenes 00:11:13
5. Berceuse heroique (version for orchestra) 00:04:55
6.  12 Etudes (excerpts) (arr. M. Jarrell for orchestra)  
No. 9. Pour les notes repetees 00:03:09
7.  No. 10. Pour les sonorites opposees 00:05:24
8.  No. 12. Pour les accords 00:04:50

Disc 3

1.  No. 1. Gigues 00:07:31
2.  No. 2. Iberia: Par les rues et par les chemins – 00:07:06
3.  No. 3. Iberia: Les parfums de la nuit – 00:09:18
4.  No. 4. Iberia: Le matin d’un jour de fete 00:04:32
5.  No. 5. Rondes de printemps 00:08:05
6.  Pour le piano: II. Sarabande 00:04:32
7.  Danse, “Tarentelle styrienne” (arr. M. Ravel for orchestra) 00:05:28
8.  Marche ecossaise sur un theme populaire (version for orchestra) 00:06:19 
9.  La plus que lente (version for orchestra) 00:06:05
Disc 4
Le martyre de St. Sebastien: Fragments symphoniques
1.  No. 1. La cour de lys (from Act I: Prelude) 00:03:39
2.  No. 2. Danse extatique et Final (from Act I) 00:07:20
3.  No. 3. La Passion (from Act III) 00:05:52
4.  No. 4. Le bon pasteur (from Act IV) 00:05:55
5.  Le martyre de St. Sebastien, Act II. La chambre magique: Prelude 00:04:07
Le martyre de St. Sebastien, Act III: Le concile des faux dieux: 2 Fanfares
6.  Fanfare No. 1 00:01:51
7.  Fanfare No. 2 00:00:28
8.  Khamma 00:21:59
Le roi Lear (orch. J. Roger-Ducasse)
9.  Fanfare d’ouverture 00:01:37
10.  Le sommeil de Lear 00:02:4
11. L’enfant prodigue: Cortege et Air de danse 00:04:59
Disc 5
1. La boite a joujoux (arr. C. Debussy and A. Caplet for orchestra)
Prelude: Le sommeil de la boite (The Toy – box Asleep) 00:02:42
2. Tableau 1: Le magasin de jouets (The Toy Shop) 00:06:13
3. Valse: Danse de la poupee 00:04:38
4. Tableau 2: Le champ de bataille (The Field of Battle) 00:09:15
5. Tableau 3: La bergerie a vendre (The Sheepfold for Sale) 00:06:45
6. Tableau 4: Apres fortune faite 00:01:42
7. Epilogue 00:01:33
8. Le triomphe de Bacchus (arr. M.F. Gaillard for orchestra)   00:03:37
9. 6 epigraphes antiques (arr. E. Ansermet for orchestra)
I. Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’ete 00:02:43
10. II. Pour un tombeau sans nom 00:04:06
11. III. Pour que la nuit soit propice 00:02:43
12. IV. Pour la danseuse aux crotales 00:02:42
13. V. Pour l’egyptienne 00:03:33
14. VI. Pour remercier la pluie au matin 00:02:19
Disc 6
En blanc et noir (arr. R. Holloway for orchestra)
1.  I. Avec emportement 00:04:48
2.  II. Lent. Sombre 00:08:19
3.  III. Scherzando 00:04:20
Petite suite (arr. H. Busser for orchestra)
4.  I. En bateau 00:03:48
5.  II. Cortege 00:03:07
6.  III. Menuet 00:02:53
7.  IV. Ballet 00:03:10
Suite bergamasque (arr. G. Cloez, A. Caplet for orchestra)
8.  I. Prelude 00:04:18
9.  II. Menuet 00:04:03
10.  III. Clair de lune 00:04:46
11.  IV. Passepied 00:03:47
12.  L’isle joyeuse (arr. B. Molinari for orchestra) 00:06:54
Disc 7
Preludes, Book 1 (arr. C. Matthews for orchestra)
1.  No. 1. Danseuses de Delphes 00:03:03
2.  No. 2. Voiles 00:03:35
3.  No. 3. Le vent dans la plaine 00:02:44
4.  No. 4. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir 00:03:48
5.  No. 5. Les collines d’Anacapri 00:03:34
6.  No. 6. Des pas sur la neige 00:04:01
7.  No. 7. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest 00:03:09
8.  No. 8. La fille aux cheveux de lin 00:03:37
9.  No. 9. La serenade interrompue 00:02:52
10. No. 10. La cathedrale engloutie 00:07:11
11. No. 11. La danse de Puck 00:03:07
12. No. 12. Minstrels 00:02:24
Printemps (arr. H. Busser for orchestra)
13. I. Tres modere 00:08:55
14. II. Modere 00:06:25
Disc 8
Preludes, Book 2 (arr. C. Matthews for orchestra)
1.  No. 1. Brouillards 00:02:50
2.  No. 2. Feuilles mortes 00:03:04
3.  No. 3. La Puerta del Vino 00:03:18
4.  No. 4. Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses 00:04:07
5.  No. 5. Bruyeres 00:03:44
6.  No. 6. General Lavine – eccentric 00:03:30
7.  No. 7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune 00:04:42
8.  No. 8. Ondine 00:03:18
9.  No. 9. Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C 00:02:41
10.  No. 10. Canope 00:02:50
11.  No. 11. Les tierces alternees 00:03:37
12.  No. 12. Feux d’artifice 00:04:31
13.  Estampes: No. 1. Pagodes (arr. A. Caplet for orchestra) 00:05:38
14.  Estampes: No. 2. La soiree dans Grenade (arr. H. Busser for orchestra) 00:05:53

Symphony in B minor (arr. T. Finno for orchestra)
15. I. Allegro ben marcato 00:04:11
16.  II. Un poco lento, cantabile 00:02:45
17.  III. Primo tempo 00:04:24

Disc 9
1.  I. Andante ma non troppo 00:07:44
2.  II. Lento e molto espressivo – Allegro molto 00:16:33
3.  Premiere rapsodie (version for clarinet and orchestra) 00:07:36
4. Rapsodie (orch. R. Roger – Ducasse) 00:10:00
2 Danses, “Danses sacree et profane”
5.  No. 1. Danse sacree 00:04:32
6.  No. 2. Danse profante 00:04:41
—Daniel Coombs
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