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CD Review: A sparkling set of little-known Debussy treats for symphony orchestra

By John Terauds on December 4, 2011

ORCHESTRE NATIONAL DE LYON/JUN MARKL
Claude Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (Naxos)

Find more information on this release and listen to audio samples here.

While music director of France’s Orchestre National de Lyon from 2005 to the start of this season, German conductor Jun Märkl assembled a wonderful set of recordings of the symphonic music of impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

The seventh volume, released this fall, features several lesser-known pieces and a clutch of spectacular soloists, making for nearly an hour of rich listening.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet finds the right balance between sparkle, muscle and lyricism in Debussy’s two-movement Fantaise for Piano and Orchestra. The first movement is a terrific virtuoso showpiece. The second is vintage Debussian languor.

A failed attempt to apply for a Prix de Rome, it also failed in getting a proper premiere after the composer finished it in 1890. It sat, unpublished until two years after debussy died. And as Märkl and Thibaudet prove, it deserves a far more glorious fate.

Two other pieces on the disc were written for competition use — each giving the solo instrument something interesting to say: Première Rapsodie for Orchestra with Principal Clarinet, first performed in 1911, gets a great soloist in Paul Meyer; Deux Danses for Harp and Strings (a “Danse sacrée” and a “Danse Profane”) are redolent with exotic harmonies. Originally written for a newly designed chromatic harp in 1904, the solo part is impeccably played by Emmanuel Ceysson on a regular concert harp.

Then there is a Rapsodie for Saxophone and Orchestra, the result of an 1895 commission from an American saxophone enthusiast, Mrs. Richard J. Hall (whose own name seems to have disappeared in the mists of time). Debussy was so unmoved by the prospect of seeing a woman playing a saxophone on stage that he dragged out the composition, leaving only sketches for the orchestration when he died. The 10-minute piece was completed after Debussy’s death by Jean Roger-Ducasse.

Each of these compositions sheds some interesting insight on Debussy’s experiments with harmony and colour — all worth listening to over and over again in this recording.

Here’s what Märkl has to say about Debussy, the orchestrator (taken from a long interview with the conductor on the Naxos website):

In the beginning, though he had some very good ideas, he was not yet really a master of instrumentation. But he learned a lot, especially from the Russian composers, and from Wagner too, and he developed into a virtuoso orchestrator, whose example influenced Ravel. He redefined the whole French approach to writing for the woodwinds, for instance. The woodwind often dominate the structure, with the strings providing a very sophisticated, fine-spun aural net, if I can put it that way. The trumpets and horns are generally very melodic, the equal of the woodwind, and the writing is often much more like what we imagine from the winds than from the brass. Orchestrally speaking, among many other things, he set up a model of orchestration for the rest of the 20th century.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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