DEBUSSY: La Mer; Violin and Cello Sonatas, Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra – Argerlich, Barenboim – DGG

by | Jul 10, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

DEBUSSY: Fantasie pour Piano et Orchestre; Sonate pour Violon et Piano; Sonate pour Violoncelle et Piano; La Mer – Martha Argerich, piano/ Michael Barenboim, violin/ Kian Soltani, cello. Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim, piano and conductor – DGG 483 7537 (4/20/21) 72:24 [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

Martha Argerich (b. 1941) remains the volatile virtuoso as ever, here (in May 2018) turning to the music of Claude Debussy exactly one hundred years since his passing. Among the selections, she and Daniel Barenboim first turn to the 1890 Fantasie in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, essentially abandoned by the composer after its aborted premiere with conductor Vincent D’Indy. After a series of unsatisfying attempts at revision, Debussy claimed he did not wish the score published until after his death. Nevertheless, the music has had significant, recorded performances by major talents such as Walter Gieseking (with Willem Mengelberg) and Eduard Erdmann (with Hans Rosbaud). 

Likely, that the Fantasie conforms to the traditional three-movement concerto format displeased Debussy, since his own, evolving aesthetic rejected Classical forms. Even so, structured in three movements whose middle Lento e molto espressivo serves as a connecting link in a through-composed work, the Fantasie more or less resembles D’Indy’s 1886 Symphony on a French Mountain Air, in which the piano adds orchestral effects and brilliant filigree. The opening 14 measures of the Andante non troppo enjoy an aerial bluster that immediately transitions, Allegro giusto, to a sonata-form that includes a second subject in B Minor and its relative D Major and bridge passages in whole-tone harmony and parallel major thirds. 

Portrait Claude Debussy, 1908

Claude Debussy, 1908
by Félix Nadar

What strikes us, who know the later style of the composer, lies in the ease of harmonic modulation – as in dominant ninths in movement two and the Allegro molto finale, where their color absorbs the Mixolydian mode – and the flexibility of the opening theme, which we realize has undergone constant variation to unify, cyclically, the piece as a whole. The dreamy second movement in F-sharp Major – which is Liszt’s favorite key for transcendence – proceeds in dialogue between Argerich and the orchestra. This second movement proceeds as a rondo moving by thirds, with the keyboard’s serving in a non-melodic function as a color instrument. The last movement strikes us as an ostinato march in G Major set as a theme and variations, with many a passing motif in A. Dynamically, the most potent moment occurs in the coda, where Debussy reintroduces a motif from movement one in which Argerich must play ffff, très marqué. Argerich and Barenboim make the same case for  the Fantasie that all the great adherents of the piece proclaim, that it deserves a more active concert life.

The 1915 Cello Sonata in D Minor owes its inception to the encouragement of Debussy’s publisher Durand, who inspired the composer to create an intended six sonatas for different instrumental combinations, of which Debussy would complete three before his death in 1918. Debussy creates a compelling amalgam of musical styles, a modernist harmony and instrumental approach superimposed upon an antique, even Baroque, sensibility reminiscent of Couperin and Rameau. Debussy had the Commedia dell’arte figure of Pierrot much in mind, which Schoenberg capitalized upon in his modernist. The economy of means and the sense of austerity contrast with the Pierrot Lunaire occasional fervor of emotion, often having the two instruments crescendo, only to break off an incomplete motive only to begin a new idea. 

This essentially homophonic piece plays out in a brief ten minutes, the two instruments synchronized in terms of  movement, the cello’s leading, the piano following. The first movement, in the Aeolian mode, remains chromatic enough to avoid a firm sense of D. The last two movements connect, attacca, each using pizzicato openings, the second movement Serenade’s  pentatonic, whole tone, modal scales, tritones, and perfect fifths (D-A-flat; A-E). The tenor of the music, as played by cellist Kian Soltani, casts an acerbic tension, not particularly songful. The last movement, Finale, in rondo form, does manage to sing, and Argerich’s keyboard achieves some definite strummed qualities. Soltani must negotiate various sorts of demanding techniques, like sliding glissandi, harmonics, and vibrato on pizzicato notes, all of which he executes in suave style. 

The Violin Sonata in G Minor (1917) serves as the last work Debussy completed before his fatal cancer took him. Debussy extends his habit of interrupting melodic tissue with brief fragments, shifting moods and tempos, and a kind of fixity on certain chords and tones; in this case of the opening Allegro vivo, the violin’s G, both in major and minor, often in a style close to gypsy Romani. The Intermède concedes to a sense of caprice, witty and ironically lyrical, with a strongly repressed passion that Michael Barenboim and Argerich well communicate. The last chords dissolve into a vaporous G Major. The first movement theme returns for the Finale, a kind of manic rush to sustain a failing energy. The blizzard of notes becomes an intoxicated waltz, with the violin’s scalar ascents into a dizzy atmosphere. The cumulative flavor of  the Sonata remains curiously Romantic in sensibility, a swan song to a truly innovative, individualistic creator.

The three-part Esquisses symphoniques, La Mer (1905), hardly requires annotation. Its sectionalized similarity to Schumann’s Allegro, Scherzo and Finale has been recognized. Debussy’s mastery of orchestral color never fails to strike our senses, evoking the flashing currents, whimsy, and menace of the sea’s eternal power. The music means in several respects to capture in music what J.M.W. Turner achieves in paint. The swells and retreats in his music motivated Debussy to request that the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s painting of a wave be inscribed on his score. The Staatskapelle Berlin string and harp sections respond beautifully to Barenboim’s demands for gauzy, erotic color, and the brass exert a brilliant, kaleidoscopic blaze of sound. “The Play of the Waves” fulfills the role of intermezzo and scherzo, with delicate, eddy-like features in winds, brass, and battery. The two elementals, water and air, collide for the final “Dialogue.” Oboe, English horn, and bassoons contribute to the tumult, which Barenboim takes marcato, as ideas from the “Dawn” section recur in cyclic form. The high pedal adds a disturbed mystery to the occasion, since the sea and her sirens, must enchant and appall Man, by turns. Barenboim does not invoke the trumpet fanfare in the coda that his idol Mitropoulos uses to suggest Triton’s appearance, but the last pages do convey a volatility and sensuous patina entirely appropriate to the occasion.

–Gary Lemco

Barenboim and Argerich play Debussy, Album Cover

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