This collection consists of just 13 minutes of music, but each note carries a wealth of significance. After all, how often do you hear Claude Debussy playing his own music and accompanying his original Mélisande, the Scottish soprano Mary Garden? The recordings with Garden, made in 1904, are acoustic – and after well over a century, one can’t exactly expect perfect sound quality of it. There is occasional warping and much background crackle. Yet the performances are extraordinarily vivid nonetheless; to say they are unmissable would be quite an understatement.
Garden’s style is of particular interest. There’s a deep inner radiance to her tone, and extraordinary precision, with a real ‘ping’ to the pitch, especially as she sings the Tower scene from Pelléas et Mélisande: her vibrato is definite and consistent, but not intrusive and occasional portamenti serve a musical purpose without ever slipping towards mannerism. She has a marvellous range, strong and distinctive at each level in a different way. There’s a poised, mature sensuality about her interpretations: the sound is filled with ardour, conviction and emotion, but never distorted by emotionalism. Together Garden and Debussy project the restless nihilism of ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, the twilit mysteries of ‘Les ombres des arbres’ and the darting, glistening soundscape of ‘Green’ in unforgettable moments of aural magic.
As for Debussy’s own playing, again the precision and many-shaded beauty of tone stand out: if this music could be called “impressionistic” (note that the composer himself had little time for such labels), it is a type of impression created through unfailing rhythm and rigorous exactitude. That never falters in the one solo piece here, ‘La Soirée dans Grenade’ from Estampes: its sultry atmosphere is underpinned by a steady habanera heartbeat that gives it unmistakable structural strength – though he is never inflexible, using rubato to wonderfully supple yet balanced effect.
These recordings will always be partially unsatisfactory - the acoustically recorded songs because of the aged sound, and the solo work because it is a piano roll, a mechanical rendition captured on the technology that was available in 1913 and played back on a more recent device. But one can learn such a lot from them about the composer’s concept of style that this is an absolute must-hear for his current much-celebrated centenary year.
Performance: five stars Sound: three stars
Debussy plays Debussy Mary Garden (soprano), Claude Debussy (piano) Ariettes oubliées L.36b: ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ (second version); ‘Les ombres des arbres’ (second version), ‘Aquarelles - 1. Green’ (second version). Estampes, L.108a: ‘La Soirée dans Grenade’; Pelléas et Mélisande, L93, Act 3: ‘Mes longs cheveux descendent’ Warner Classics: 9029571151
Jessica Duchen’s music journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is the author of a number of novels (most recently Ghost Variations, published in 2016), biographies and plays. A recent project included an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.
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