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CD Review

Claude Debussy

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

  • Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano
Nathalie Stutzmann, mezzo-soprano
Sylvia McNair, soprano
Leslie Caron, narrator
London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Sony SK48240 66:16
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Gorgeous.

A major work by a major composer, Le Martyre remains little done and relatively unknown. Composed in 1911 and premièred the same year, Debussy originally created it as music for the production of a gargantuan, five-act, five-hour spectacle for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, written by D'Annunzio. The play (or at least what's survived in recorded versions of the music) fully deserves its obscurity – another tiresome, decadent kitsch-fest writers loved to produce around the turn of the century when they wanted to be especially poetic (think of Wilde's Salome and Hofmannstahl's Josephslegende).

D'Annunzio's original sprawl certainly hasn't helped Debussy's music, while Debussy's music is about the only point in favor of remembering D'Annunzio's play at all, so the question becomes one of a good performing concert edition. There are at least four, none of them really standard: a suite of instrumental interludes; a performing version by Germaine Inghelbrecht, I believe recorded by Munch and the Boston on RCA, although it left out certain numbers; a performing version by Bernstein, at one time available on a Sony CD; Thomas's version, which claims to present all of Debussy's music. The Munch performance is wonderful, but it leaves out stuff. Bernstein substituted his own narration, more arch than Eric Idle's "nudge-nudge" man, and I find it unlistenable for that reason. Thomas really does have the edge here. This version of course lacks the continuity of the full deal, although it makes use of Inghelbrecht's narration, drawn from D'Annunzio's text. However, it's really all you need and perhaps more, especially if you already know the Sebastian story (he's the guy with the arrows sticking into him in the Renaissance paintings). Thomas writes a particularly apt phrase on the effect of this version on at least me: "It is like the fragments of an ancient gospel." The fragments contribute to the mystery of the work. Unlike a Handel oratorio, which presents a narrative in full, Thomas's Le Martyre forces the listener to ponder meaning. It's as if we were reading a book in which random pages have been torn out. Sometimes we get the detail we need, sometimes too much detail, sometimes too little, and sometimes nothing at all.

But most significant attraction of the work lies in – make no mistake – the very great beauty of the music itself. It counts as some of the most exquisite Debussy ever wrote, which says a lot, because it's Debussy. I first heard the work (Munch performance) one Christmas while riding in the family car. I turned on the radio at the point of the glorious final psalm, "Louez le Seigneur dans l'immensité de sa force" (praise the Lord in the immensity of his power), and I imagined heaven opening up before me, with celestial alleluias trumpeting from the four corners and disappearing into the skies. I had to get to know this score and bought the LP with my own money. It was undoubtedly one of the first LPs I ever owned. Nevertheless, it comes from Debussy's last period, probably the least known part of his catalogue, boasting such works as Jeux, En blanc et noir, the Villon ballades, and the sonatas.

In some sense, the music is a sport. Debussy not only revived his idiom for La damoiselle elue (deepened by decades of experience) but also came up with music one-of-a-kind. Some things are unprecedented and never repeated. He wrote the music in a blazing two months, with his disciple André Caplet coming in at the end to help finish the orchestration. To be honest, a few of the numbers – most especially the choral hymn to Apollo by the "Musicians" – definitely show the haste and remind one of a DeMille epic. Most of it, however, sings "a new song," at times exhilarating, at others quietly rapt. Quiet, slow moments predominate, and Debussy succeeds not only at keeping your attention, but at overwhelming you with the beauty of his song. The music transforms the purple poetry to mystical ecstasy. I have no idea how Debussy came up with such wonderful music to such a trashy text, but clearly he had a higher opinion of D'Annunzio's work than I do, and that's all that matters.

Everything depends on the women soloists, and the trio here helps lift this performance to an incredible level. I don't know what it is, but singers who master French and French song strike me as the smartest of their tribe – viz. von Stade, Blegen, McNair, Herbillon, Souzay, Panzera, Sills, Singher, and so on. They put out a line of great beauty and great subtlety, so sensitive to emotional nuance, it almost quivers. That's certainly the case with McNair and Murray (no relation to Canada's "snowbird"), and Stutzmann – while not quite at that level – ain't exactly Dorito crumbs. Perhaps the music demands it of them. In order to get through the music at all convincingly, one has to sing pretty damn well.

Yet another brilliant piece of casting is Leslie Caron as the narrator. Of course she speaks French, but without classical stage declamation. Her movie training serves her very well and also D'Annunzio's text. Her "natural" delivery takes much of the plumminess off, whereas a stage actress, trained in, say, Racine, would tend to inflate the doggerel until it popped. And, of course, her speaking voice is seven kinds of beautiful all by itself.

Thomas, the orchestra, and the chorus do this music better than I knew possible. As far as I'm concerned, they set the standard. The work and the performance are so rapturous, I can't describe what a glory it is just to listen. I urge you, however, to pick up this CD before it goes out of print.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz