Notes and Editorial Reviews
Michiels is an excellent advocate of this music. He plays with obvious love and understanding.
Despite being well aware that one’s reaction to any music, as with all art forms, is subjective, I find it really difficult to understand how any music-lover can have a negative opinion of the music of Debussy. For me he gets as near as anyone has ever got to painting in music. His melodies are ravishing and heady mixes of gorgeous sounds - just listen to
La Cathédrale Engloutie to hear what I mean. Few composers have equalled his musical description of the sea. Despite the fact that he was French and spent the briefest possible amount of time in Spain - a short visit to San Sebastian - there were few composers
who so convincingly evoked the very essence of Spain as he did.
Having declared my prejudice in his favour I am pleased to review this disc that pays homage to one of the very greatest of late nineteenth century composers. The concept here was to present some of his late works interspersed with some of those written in homage to him by a group of his colleagues. I hope another disc will follow that includes the rest.
The outbreak of the first world war was a shock for millions throughout Europe and particularly for Debussy who loved his country more than most. He was also suffering greatly from the rectal cancer that had been diagnosed nine years before and that would eventually kill him at the age of 56. The German artillery bombarding Paris prevented a proper ceremony from taking place. It was, therefore, not until two years after the cessation of hostilities that a fitting tribute could be organised. This came in the form of a musical homage that was commissioned by the newly formed French arts paper
La Revue Musicale. This devoted its second issue to Debussy with a supplement that included the compositions of several composers for whom the death of Debussy was a great blow. The present disc includes several of them.
The opening track is something Debussy wrote in 1914 in tribute to King Albert I of Belgium, the first country to succumb to the German onslaught due to the fact that the King had refused Germany’s demand that he allow German troops to pass through Belgium in order to attack France. It is as Debussy described it “... melancholic, reserved ... without any claim other than to pay homage to so much willing suffering”. It is rendered even more sombre through the use of the restored Erard concert grand piano from 1892 whose sound is duller than that we would anticipate from a modern instrument. A short two and a half minute piece by Malipiero follows simply entitled
Lento in which Debussy’s influence is very evident and it uses a theme from Debussy’s String Quartet.
Berceuse Héroïque Debussy wrote nothing for several months such was the depression that set in after the outbreak of war. He felt that “... what I do seems wretchedly petty”. Then in the summer of 1915 in Dieppe he spent three months at the villa ‘Mon Coin’ with a view of the sea which meant so much to him. There he managed to produce
En blanc et noir for two pianos, the Sonata for cello and piano, the Sonata for flute, viola and harp and the
Twelve Studies (
which are heard on this disc in four groups of three. They are quintessential Debussy, full of incredible invention and dedicated to Chopin. He was in two minds as to whether he would dedicate them to Chopin or Couperin, each of whom he held in the highest regard as “...these two masters, both so admirably prescient”. That’s how I see these works, for as I listen I find it hard to believe that they were written just short of one hundred years ago as they sound so fresh and ‘modern’.
The next piece that formed part of the homage and presented to
La Revue Musicale is by Dukas. Once again no higher praise could be paid to his friend than to demonstrate that he too was influenced by him. In this case Dukas evoked the
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune as well as the study
For Sixths in the moving
Plainte, au loin, du faune ...
The second part of the
Études comes next and, as the pianist on this disc, Jan Michiels explains, Debussy may have generally avoided any romantic allusion in giving titles to each study but there are some references within the pieces that can be discerned such as the cake-walk, Spanish dance rhythms and the gamelan (in
pour les Octaves). These are treated in such a way as to bring to mind the words of Verlaine, “Take eloquence and twist its neck”.
In his tribute Bartók chose a variation on a Hungarian folk tune, something for which he was renowned. There follow two highly contrasting works by Debussy from 1915,
Pour l’œuvre du ‘Vêtement du Blessé, an occasional piece written at the request of his wife Emma Bardac for something for a charity committee. Then there’s the dark
Élégie which is full of despair.
L’acceuil des Muses which is also sombre and reflective comes next. Then we come to Debussy’s second book of six studies beginning with the devilishly fast opening of
Pour les Degrés chromatiques. It is all the more incredible that a man who has been silent for so many months after feeling the mentally and emotionally crushing impact of the start of the war accompanied by the highly painful effects of his cancer, which even made dressing in the morning something he likened to completing all of the labours of Hercules in one go, could write such fiendishly difficult yet delicate studies, all of which were composed in eight short weeks.
Homenaje Falla quotes from Debussy’s
La Soirée dans Grenade which Falla marvelled at considering that it had been written “by a foreigner guided almost solely by the vision of his genius”. Then we have the last three of Debussy’s
Études that again show how ahead of his time Debussy was. Suffice to say that serial composers Boulez and Barraqué included the works in their analyses. Jan Michiels points out that the study
pour les Sonorités opposées perfectly illustrates Debussy’s phrase that “Music is made for the inexpressible”. How empty people’s lives must be if they can’t “get into music” for surely we all need something that can express things we have no other way of doing.
Études end with the superb
pour les Accords with its contrasting fast and furious opening set against its slow and reflective middle section before returning to the opening theme once more. Debussy’s friend Stravinsky’s contribution to the musical homage is a fragment from his own
Symphony for Wind Instruments presented in a liturgical style.
The disc ends with Debussy’s own beautiful
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon with its allusions to Baudelaire. He wrote this for his coal supplier - it is to be hoped that it was appreciated as something infinitely more valuable than money!
This disc is a joy to listen to. It is a carefully chosen and winning programme that by setting Debussy’s works in amongst those of his friends makes the whole experience more poignant. It also serves to help the listener appreciate the wealth of Debussy’s invention and the esteem in which he was held by his musical colleagues. I loved it. Jan Michiels is an excellent advocate of this music. He plays with obvious love and understanding of all the nuances and revels in Debussy’s fabulous sonorities.
-- Steve Arloff, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Lento by Gian-Francesco Malipiero
Jan Michiels (Piano)
Berceuse heroïque by Claude Debussy
Jan Michiels (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1914; France
Elégie by Claude Debussy
Jan Michiels (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1915; France
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