Orchestral works Debussy special
Andrew Mcgregor compares two box sets of the composer’s complete works
Debussy The complete works Warner Classics 9029573675 33 CDS Complete works Deutsche Grammophon 479 8642 22 CDS + 2 DVDS Here we have the complete works of Claude Debussy twice – a box each from Warner Classics and Deutsche Grammophon. These are the most comprehensive offerings for Debussy’s centenary, so what divides them, and why is one box bigger than the other? My eyes and ears were drawn straight away by the Warner box, because of the classic recordings made in the 1970s by conductor
Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de L’ORTF. Martinon was part of a French performing tradition through his teachers Roussel and d’indy, and the orchestra still sounds distinctly ‘French’ with the timbres of the winds and horns, and gorgeous f lute solos of Alain Marion. Against which Deutsche Grammophon offers the clarity, accuracy and oh-so-beautifully paced account of Jeux from Pierre Boulez in Cleveland. A more international sound, but summing up the mystery, newness and ingenuity of Debussy’s astonishing orchestrations. Boulez vs Martinon is no easy call, and Warners also has Carlo Maria Giulini’s classic 1962 La Mer, more seductive seascapes than either Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan in the DG set.
Here Deutsche Grammophon looks like a runaway winner as there so many fine pianists from which to choose: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Jean-yves Thibaudet, Zoltán Kocsis, Pierre-laurent Aimard, Maurizio Pollini, while from the younger generation there’s Rafa Blechacz, and most impressively SeongJin Cho, whose recent Debussy recital has been gathering plaudits from all quarters for its limpid clarity and subtle shading of colour and dynamics. Warner fights back with Aimard’s earlier recordings, and some other great Debussyans: Aldo Ciccolini, Cecile Ousset, Michel Béroff, the veteran Samson François, and Debussy himself, in his acoustic 78s – sounding their age, but essential documents – and his piano roll recordings, with no sonic issues. In the duets Warner holds a couple of aces: Debussy’s transcriptions of other composers (and other composers of Debussy), plus the great French duo of Geneviève Joy and Jacqueline Robin-bonneau, whose account of En blanc et noir has superb drive and ensemble.
Choral & song
Ah, the songs. Where to begin? It would take the rest of the page just to list the singers and pianists, so suffice it to say that both boxes offer great range and variety. There’s more intrigue around the choral music; both boxes have licenced the same recording of Debussy’s Prix de Rome cantatas The Gladiator and The Prodigal Son, conducted by Hervé Niquet. But Warner has a first recording of Chanson de brises, early Debussy from 1882 for women’s voices and piano duet, performed from an unpublished proof: a delightful discovery.
Honours equal here I think; Warners has Renaud Capuçon and friends in their excellent recent Erato recording, and the superb Ebène Quartet, while DG has the Emersons at their best, and violinist Anne-sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis in the Violin Sonata – intensely rewarding. Sadly Yehudi Menuhin and Jacques Février for Warners are no competition.
DG seems to have this one in the bag, with two fine accounts of Pelléas et Mélisande: Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording on CD with soprano Maria Ewing and baritone François le Roux, more visceral than Pierre Boulez filmed on DVD at Welsh National Opera with Alison Hagley and
Neill Archer, clear and intimate. Both superior to Armin Jordan for Warners, but their trump card is another opera: Debussy’s three act Rodrigue et Chimène, a version of El Cid he abandoned to work on Pelléas. Kent Nagano’s Lyon Opera recording of the completion is more than a curiosity, and definitely worth including – another reason there are more CDS in the Warner set, a whole extra opera. There are also those historic Debussy recordings on the last disc in the set (including Debussy accompanying his original Mélisande, soprano Mary Garden – two minutes of tantalising time travel).
It’s not simple, is it? Deutsche Grammophon seems more attractive at first glance for the modern interpreters and recording quality, from Boulez to all those pianists, plus Pelléas on CD and DVD. They also include all the sung texts and translations which Warner Classics doesn’t. But that’s where you’ll find the extras: the world premiere, the arrangements, the unfinished opera and more classic and historic recordings. One thing’s for sure: invest in either set, and you’ll be able to spend many hours reminding yourself of the ingenuity and originality of Debussy, one of the greatest of French composers.
Seeking inspiration: Debussy beside the River Marne in 1895