Debussy, just the way he’d have wanted
DEBUSSY: JEUX/ NOCTURNES
Les Siècles, cond François-Xavier Roth
No record company has taken the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death more seriously than Harmonia Mundi, which has produced a whole slew of recordings across this year. Several of them are performed on instruments that were current in Debussy’s own lifetime, including this final release, which contains three of his major orchestral works, on CD and DVD. They’re performed by Les Siècles, an orchestra founded in 2003 by French conductor François-Xavier Roth to recreate the sound-world of past centuries, from the baroque era onwards.
Some might say this is taking the idea of “historically informed performance” a bit too far. After all, the orchestra had settled into its modern formation by the late 19th century, and the instruments themselves seem hardly different technologically from the instruments we know today. Isn’t it just a marketing ploy, to tell us that the harpist is using an instrument made by Pleyel in 1914, and the bassoons were all made by the well-known firm of BuffetCrampon from 1900 to 1920?
One only has to listen to a few bars of the immortal Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to realise it’s more than that. The recording won’t give you the aural shock of a baroque horn or a clattering classical-era kettledrum. But there’s a distinct personality in the sound. French bassoons of that era sound more fruity and plangent than modern ones and the horns are softer-grained – which makes a huge difference at key moments in the ballet Jeux, which is based on that very “modern” thing, a game of tennis.
None of this would matter, if the performances did not have the lightning flexibility and suggestiveness that Debussy wanted. The shifting greys of Nuages are beautifully caught, and thanks to the female voices of the choir Les Cris de Paris the aqueous depths of Sirènes seem more than usually seductive. Only the frenzy of Fêtes seems a little muted, but the overall effect of this very fine “historical” recording is of a different tonality, a lovely golden-brown patina.