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Debussy: Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 / Markl, Orchestra National De Lyon

Debussy / Orchestre National De Lyon / Markl
Release Date: 09/28/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572297   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Jun Märkl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DEBUSSY Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien: Symphonic Fragments. Khamma Jun Märkl, cond; Lyon Natl O NAXOS 8572297 (61:22)

And the ball bounces back to me. In Fanfare 32:2, I reviewed Volume 1 in this series, the kickoff to a survey of Debussy’s complete works for orchestra. That some of the items were not originally written for orchestra didn’t disqualify them from inclusion; in addition to the Prelude to Read more the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer , and Jeux , that first volume also included an orchestrated version of Children’s Corner by André Caplet.

Volume 2, containing the Nocturnes along with other orchestral arrangements, went to James Miller in 32:6. And Volume 3, containing Images and more orchestral arrangements, went to Boyd Pomeroy in 34:1 Now, once again there comes a knocking at my door, and it’s Volume 4. You’d think Märkl’s cycle was the waif no one wanted, but the truth is Miller, Pomeroy, and I have all had positive things to say. The one thing I said in my review of Volume 1 that bears repeating is that Debussy didn’t really write that much original music for orchestra, so filling up this many discs requires considerable padding with works arranged for orchestra after the fact, a number of them by composers other than Debussy, and in at least one case—a good part of Khamma —with music not by Debussy at all.

Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien , which Debussy did write for orchestra—indeed for orchestra and chorus with solo vocal parts for soprano and two altos—is presented on the current disc as the Symphonic Fragments in which the aforementioned Caplet had a hand. The original work, as conceived by Debussy, was a five-act musical mystery play custom-designed for the famous dancer and stage actress Ida Rubinstein. The first performance in 1911 scandalized the French, who are genetically predisposed, it seems, to take to the streets in protest; consider what happened two years later at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

In the case of Debussy’s dead-on-arrival opus, the Archbishop of Paris issued a fatwa (or whatever it’s called by the Roman Catholic Church) urging Catholics to boycott the performance or face possible excommunication. The reason was partly due to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s treatment of the subject, which combined aspects of the saint’s story with pagan and homoerotic elements of Adonis worship. But good, old-fashioned chauvinism and bigotry also reared their twin heads, for the dancer playing St. Sebastian, heaven forefend, was a woman, and double hex, she was Jewish. Could it have been any worse? Oh yes, much worse, if someone had whispered in the archbishop’s ear that Rubinstein was also an out-of-the-closet lesbian. Debussy sure knew how to pick them; read further down about his next stage effort, Khamma . With Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien he won the trifecta for political incorrectness, the result being that the work never entered the repertoire as it was written. In various adaptations and abridgements, however, it was taken up on occasion by notable conductors such as Ansermet, Monteux, Bernstein, and Tilson Thomas.

While no one I know is clamoring for a complete recording of the original work—its five acts last more than five hours, longer, I believe, than Wagner’s longest single opera—based on the excerpts contained in the Symphonic Fragments , one would have to grant that Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien contains some of Debussy’s most beautiful music—Debussy’s Parsifal, some have called it. With this new release, Naxos is competing against its own 1992 recording of the Fragments by Alexander Rahbari and the Brussels Belgian Radio & TV Philharmonic Orchestra, a CD I’ve hung onto for a fine performance of Debussy’s Images ; but this entry from Jun Märkl and the Lyon National Orchestra outclasses the Rahbari in both finesse of orchestral playing and recorded sound. A performance by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA is a classic, but it’s in mono; newer, though hardly recent, versions by Dutoit and Barenboim now appear to come packaged only in two-disc sets. So, this latest volume in Naxos’s Debussy survey is strongly recommended.

One really does wonder about Debussy’s instincts for picking partners. Not long after the Saint Sébastien fiasco, he hooked up with another dancer/actress/choreographer, Canadian Maud Allan. Compared to Allan, Ida Rubinstein was a saint. Allan spent her early years (the late 1880s through the mid 1890s) in that bawdy Bagdad-by-the-Bay known as San Francisco, where her brother was hanged for the murder of two women. In 1895 she moved to Berlin to study piano at the Hochschule für Musik, but in 1900, desperate for money, she abandoned her studies to publish a sex manual for women titled Illustriertes Konversations-Lexikon der Frau.

She became quite famous—some would say infamous—in Vienna and then England for her exposé of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome , based on Oscar Wilde’s play, which had been banned in England by the Lord Chamberlain. Then things got really ugly. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, a British MP, Noel Pemberton Billing, published a damning diatribe, titled of all things, “The Cult of the Clitoris,” in which he charged that Allan was a lesbian associate of German wartime conspirators (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried). She sued for libel, but lost in a sensational trial during which “she was accused of practicing many of the sexually charged acts depicted (or implied) in Wilde’s writings herself, including necrophilia.” To cast further aspersions on her character and cause her still more shame, “her brother’s crimes were also dredged up to suggest there was a background of sexual insanity in her family.” Allan returned to the U.S., where she taught dance and lived with her lover, Verna Aldrich, until she died in Los Angeles in 1956.

As you can see, most of the really scandalous events happened during and after the war, but Allan had already published her women’s sex manual when Debussy teamed up with her in 1912 to produce the “danced legend” Khamma . There must have been something in the air at the time about virgins being sacrificed (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring , 1913) and lunatic Lizzies dancing themselves to death in rapturous glee over the murder of mothers and fathers (Strauss’s Elektra , 1909). The Khamma scenario presents yet another variation on a not dissimilar theme. Khamma, an Egyptian virgin priestess, saves her country from invasion by dancing in front of a statue of Amun-Ra. Whipping herself into a frenzied state of mounting ecstasy, she dances wildly until she drops dead.

From the outset, there was bad blood between Debussy and Allan—he should have known who he was getting involved with—so much so that partway through the project he realized he couldn’t work with her and handed over the task of completing the score to Charles Koechlin. The music following the point at which the High Priest offers his supplication is by Koechlin, not Debussy.

The disc closes with two short works. Debussy sketched music in 1904 for a planned score of incidental music to King Lear . He soon lost interest in the project, leaving the two movements to be orchestrated by J. Roger-Ducasse. The disc also contains the Cortège et air de danse extracted from the one-act cantata or scène lyrique, L’Enfant prodigue.

One can’t be sure if this is the final volume in the Märkl/Naxos Debussy survey. But clearly, it presents some of the composer’s less frequently heard works—some, in part, not written by Debussy, and some, either all or in part, orchestrated by others. So it would seem there is little left at the bottom of the cookie jar for Märkl and Naxos but crumbs. There is some very beautiful music on this disc, even if not all of it is by Debussy, and the playing and recording are excellent. So, yes, strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Le martyre de Saint Sébastien is a very long play by Gabriele d'Annunzio. It was written for Ida Rubinstein during the time he spent in France, in order to avoid d'Annunzio’s creditors in Italy. Debussy wrote a large amount of music for the production but the play was not a success. Fortunately, Debussy’s music contains some of his best work and it has been recorded many times, both complete and in the suite of Symphonic Fragments. Earlier this year, Ansermet’s recording of almost an hour’s worth of the music was re-issued (Decca Eloquence 480 0130) and Pierre Monteux recorded the Fragments with the London Symphony Orchestra (only available as part of a very tempting 7 CD set, Decca 000797902). I cannot recommend these recordings too highly for both Ansermet and Monteux knew Debussy and have his music in their blood, which gives their performances a deeper understanding of the composer’s work which it is impossible for other conductors to achieve. Indeed, this is just about as near to having the composer himself conducting as you can get. But this isn’t to denigrate Märkl’s recording which is very fine indeed. He achieves the mystical quality essential to this work, restraint, chaste beauty, delicacy are all paramount in his interpretation and the orchestra responds with playing of great beauty and refinement. Ansermet offers the vocal sections as well, in his recording, but the Fragments given here make a fine and most satisfying suite and Märkl is to be praised for such an accomplished exposition of the music.

Khamma also appeared in the Ansermet re-issue and Märkl takes about two and a half minutes longer than his colleague but this music can take that for it is elusive and sensual. Perhaps not Debussy at his best - he wrote the piece for a commission of 10,000 francs and lost interest, leaving part of the orchestration to the immensely talented, and still much under-rated, Charles Koechlin. Märkl has a stronger grip on the music, and thus gives a more exciting performance than Ansermet, but both are valid interpretations.

The two fanfares are all that Debussy wrote of some incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. They’re regal and colourful, and possess a suavity which is most unexpected. The Cortège et air de danse from the cantata L’Enfant prodigue, which won Debussy the coveted Prix de Rome, is a nicely flavoured excerpt in the eastern mode. It was beloved by Beecham as a lollipop.

This is a fine disk, and at the modest price it’s a real bargain, especially with such good recording and notes.

-- Bob Briggs, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Le martyre de St Sébastien: Suite by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Jun Märkl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Khamma by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Jun Märkl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911-1912; France 
Le roi Lear: Fanfare by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Jun Märkl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904; France 
Le roi Lear: Le Sommeil de Lear by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Jun Märkl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904; France 
L'enfant prodigue: Cortège et Air de danse by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Jun Märkl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1884/1908; France 

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