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CD Review

Claude Debussy

Orchestral Works

  • Nocturnes
  • Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and orchestra
  • Jeux, Poème dansé
  • La Mer
Franklin Cohen, clarinet
Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 439896-2 70:58
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Ravishing.

Debussy stands with Mussorgsky, Mahler, Reger, and Strauss among the great progenitors of Modernism. He differs from most of the others in that he had no great interest, past relatively early work, in the classical forms. He took the Romantic idea of "organic form" from people like Chopin and Schumann (he edited Chopin's piano music) to an extreme. On the other hand, classical forms lurk even in the deep levels of Strauss's tone poems. To some extent, they touch Debussy's own Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, his first major orchestral work. After that, however, they almost disappear, replaced by essentially expanded songs and dances and by "narratives." A work like "Feux d'artifice" fulfills Ives' notion of a piece of music unfolding like a life. Harmonies are so chromatic and so strained in their relationships, they lose their progressive function and become "colors." Schoenberg may have theoretically proclaimed the birth of atonality, but he seldom got any further out than Debussy. Indeed, Debussy was the composer most performed at Schoenberg's private subscription concerts. Since classical forms depend on the establishment of key to mark their major sections, Debussy often couldn't use them and had to find something else. Even in works with relatively strong tonal centers, Debussy avoided the structural function of harmony with such devices as the old church modes, non-Germanic folk music, and whole-tone scales. He doesn't modulate to new keys as much as he simply plunks down whatever new tonal center he wants.

Recently, we've heard much talk about Debussy's music as non-Impressionist, although of course the term was adapted from painting to describe the type of music Debussy wrote. Debussy himself cared neither for the term as applied to his music nor for the painters of that school (his favorite painter was Botticelli). However, the critics who used the term weren't necessarily fools. One can find point in the analogy between the canvasses of Impressionists and Postimpressionists and the music of Debussy. Although one notes exceptions among individual painters, the interest of Impressionism isn't primarily psychological. One doesn't "read" the surface to arrive at a metaphysical truth, truth of character, or dramatic conflict. Rather, the surface leads to pure sensation – often ecstasy in the presence of the beautiful. The impressionist usually says, without Mahler's irony, "Wird's nicht eine schoene Welt?" The world is often enough. With the major sport of Pelléas and some of the late works to one side, almost all of Debussy's music deals in the physical sensation of the world and the shutting down of the brain overwhelmed by beauty.

A lot of music forgives a loose performance. Horenstein's Mahler Eighth, for example, has clams galore, but it matters less than his unsurpassed ability to capture the rhetorical and architectural thrust of the work. Debussy, however, constitutes a special case. The texture and sonority is indeed largely the point. While much of Boulez's conducting strikes me as literally superficial and led to some very disappointing Bartók with the Chicago, in Debussy, Boulez's concern with surface becomes a benefit.

This CD is, I believe, the second album of Boulez's traversal through Debussy's orchestral music with the Cleveland Orchestra, an organization not heretofore known for its Debussy. In fact, Szell's recording of La Mer was generally known, even in Cleveland, as "Das Meer." At issue was the clarity of subsidiary lines. Playing Impressionist music thirty or forty years ago meant a lush wash of orchestral sound. Performances by Ansermet, Ormandy, and Stokowski set the tonal image. Yet it turns out that Szell's approach was prophetic – a revolution I saw in my lifetime. Boulez's Debussy sounds much closer to Szell's than to Ansermet's.

The Nocturnes, if I had to choose, would probably rank as my favorite Debussy orchestral piece. In three movements – "Clouds," "Fêtes," and "Sirens" (the Odyssey kind) - the work is about new, beautiful harmonies and sonorities. From the bare opening of "Clouds" (winds in two parts) to the Holstian fade-out of women's voices in "Sirens" (more than a decade before Holst), Boulez and the Cleveland find the groove of the piece. This is playing so good, it's scary. Cleveland's musical strength has always been rhythmic precision. Here, they manage to add such marvelous phrasing that one hears long lines more than rhythms, although the rhythms lose none of their sharpness. If there's an orchestra finer than this one, I don't know it.

The so-called First Rhapsody for clarinet (Debussy never wrote a Second) Debussy originally wrote for clarinet and piano as a test piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire. This work differs from the "Petite pièce" (also for clarinet and piano and also written as a Conservatoire test piece). It's far longer and structurally more complex. Debussy was so pleased with it, he himself orchestrated it (a task he often left to others). Again, one has to hear the playing to believe it. Franklin Cohen, Cleveland's principal clarinet, puts out a rapturous line – smooth and secure over the complete range of the instrument. He is a master of color and dynamics. I've not heard anyone else with such a variety. But this isn't simply a technical exercise, beautifully done. Cohen and the orchestra capture the dreamy sensuousness and the ecstasy of the piece.

Debussy wrote his last orchestral work, Jeux (1913), as a ballet for Nijinsky. It's an odd work with an odd scenario. To quote from the original program note, after a fairly substantial Prélude in which nothing happens on stage,

… [a tennis] ball falls onto the stage; a young man in tennis kit, racket held high, bounds across. He disappears… Then two girls come on, fearful and curious. They seem to be looking only for somewhere to exchange confidences. They start to dance, one after the other. Suddenly they stop, disconcerted by the noise of disturbed leaves. The young man is to be seen, his gaze following their movements from the branches. They make to leave. But he brings them back tactfully and persuades one of them to dance with him; he even steals a kiss. The spite or jealousy of the other girl sets off an ironic, mocking dance… and draws the attention of the young man: he invites her into a waltz.… But the first girl, abandoned, makes to leave. The other restrains her… with tender insistence, and the dance becomes a threesome… growing more and more excited to a moment of ecstasy, interrupted by another falling lost tennis ball, which causes the three young people to flee; the chords of the Prélude return; a few notes still slip by furtively, and it is all over.

To hear the music of this work alone, one would never guess the scenario. The pre-War polite tennis party and flirtation take place to music as passionately pagan as Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. Pan dances with nymphs, all in tennis costume. Just as in the works of Loüys and other Decadents, the classical world is seen as a sexually liberating force. A late work, Jeux's music speaks in the accents of the sphinx. Much goes on "below the surface." This is music of psychological ambiguity. The surface has become not an end in itself but, as in Henry James, a repository of hints and clues to the emotional life of the principals. Yet it is also music a dancer would like to move to.

I've never understood the popularity of La Mer. Yes, it's a masterpiece, but it's full of such quirks – no great tunes, no sustained dancing, and many sudden shifts of idea – all things that tend to put off much of the audience. Perhaps people have fun using the music as a soundtrack to films of the sea they run in their heads. I like Reiner's powerful recording with the Chicago best, but Boulez and the Cleveland again play gorgeously and with a greater sense of the work's architecture. Again, while I prefer Reiner, Boulez does awfully well.

The sound – rich and clear at the same time – dazzles. And for who better than Debussy? If ever there was a reason for great sound, it's Debussy so well played. For me, one of the greatest recordings by this orchestra.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz