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Claude Debussy: La Mer; Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; La Boîte à joujoux
29 Jan 2006


Inspired by the elitist poets of late nineteenth century Paris, Debussy was eager to join their ranks by developing musical ideas that evoked the same emotional response as the poetry he admired. Originally, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was a collaborative project between Debussy and Stéphane Mallarmé, a poet highly regarded by the composer.

Claude Debussy: La Mer; Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; La Boîte à joujoux

Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (cond.)

EMI 7243 5 58045 2 5 [CD]


The joint work was to be premiered in Paris in February 1891; however, for unknown reasons, the performance was cancelled.1 The result was two separate works with the same title, each expressing the same imagery without the limitations and constraints of the other medium. That is, the music was somehow liberated from the text and vice versa. However, the separation of the music from the text was not absolute. In fact, the use of the flute to represent the faun comes directly from the line in Mallarmé’s poem, “a single line of sound, aloof, disinterested.”2 In this recording, flutist Emmanuel Pahud depicts Debussy’s faun with lyrical gentility for a delightful effect. The balance of the winds and brass is quite impressive, demonstrating Simon Rattle’s delicate and thoughtful interpretation of this musical poem that is most accurately characterized by its tender moments.

Debussy’s La mer expresses the composer’s romantic fascination with the ocean. In a letter Debussy wrote to his friend, André Messager, Debussy confessed his childhood dreams of becoming a sailor and his utter adoration of the sea. When studying the score, it is evident that Debussy eagerly wanted to capture the organic and rhythmical flow of the ocean in his music. For this reason, Debussy went through the painstaking effort of providing precise instructions for tempo modifications throughout the work. For example, Debussy would instruct performers to ritard for four measures and/or very gradually accelerando in sections that did not necessarily constitute a phrase, but rather a wave-like contour. If well-executed, the resulting performance should closely mimic the flow of oceans waves. Simon Rattle deserves a standing ovation for this brilliant performance that pays the utmost respect to the composer and demonstrates an intimate understanding of nature.

Among the most difficult feats to accomplish in La mer are the long legato lines that must blend in with their surroundings. In other words, given that the ocean never starts or stops abruptly, neither can the music. Certainly, this recording demonstrates the orchestra’s unquestioned ability to sustain a musical idea for an inordinate amount of time. In one particular section, the cellos take over the melody in a four-part divisi to form a rich texture of fleeting motivic passages. The seamlessness from one motif to another further emphasizes the remarkable ability of the players to follow the natural current of this musical odyssey.

In contrast to the fluid presentation of La mer, Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux can be described by its sudden changes in character, as well as by the juxtaposition of a number of musical fragments and gestures. Rather than depicting nature, La Boîte à joujoux has a more rambunctious story to tell, inspired by his own daughter’s playful antics. The role of the piano is essential to establishing a youthful element in this work, particularly in the mischievous “1er Tableau: Le Magasin de jouets.” Pianist Majella Stockhausen-Riegelbauer delivers an enjoyably capricious performance that simply radiates with liveliness - the orchestra certainly echoes her spirit. The best way to describe this piece, particularly in this performance, is simply to say that it is “fun and carefree.” The placing of this piece immediately after La mer was also a commendable decision since it showcases Debussy’s and the orchestra’s diverse talents.

The final work of the recording is an orchestration by Colin Matthews of three of Debussy’s Preludes. There are many examples of famous orchestrations of piano works, most notably, Ravel’s orchestration of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Quite often, the orchestral version is preferred by audiences for its grandiose presentation. However, there are many works that do not naturally lend themselves to orchestration. When listening to recordings of the preludes performed on piano, it is difficult to imagine an orchestral manifestation of such pianistic pieces. The result of Colin Matthew’s treatment of Debussy’s Preludes is a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

The orchestration of the three preludes is quite remarkable, generating some powerful moments through a seemingly perfect choice of instruments. Still, it is worth mentioning that it was sometimes difficult to recognize the original work for piano. Somehow, the relationship between the orchestration and the preludes for solo piano is obscured by the dramatic elements from a wide-range of timbres. In many ways, it is easier to hear the voice of the orchestrator in these pieces than that of Debussy. While still captivating, perhaps even more so in this dramatic setting, the images conveyed are unlike those of the original work. After attempts to compare the two works, the inescapable conclusion is that there is no comparison. Each version is simply a pleasure to listen to in its own way.

Nathalie Hristov
University of Tennessee

1 Barbara L. Kelly, “Debussy’s Parisian Affiliations,” in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, ed. Simon Trezise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 33-4.

2 Ibid., 34.

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