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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor [13:41]
Cello Sonata [12:17]
Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp [17:07]
Syrinx for solo flute [2:44]
Boston Symphony Chamber Players (Michael Tilson Thomas (piano), Joseph Silverstein (violin), Jules Eskin (cello), Doriot Anthony Dwyer (flute), Burton Fine (viola), Ann Hobson (harp))
rec. 1970, Symphony Hall, Boston
PENTATONE PTC5186226 SACD [46:11]

This release in Pentatone’s ‘Remastered Classics’ is very welcome. The 1970 disc deserves its restoration from quadrophonic tapes into surround-sound SACD for musical as well as sonic reasons. The three multi-movement chamber works represented here were all written in Debussy’s last years, and once seemed rather elusive compared to the most accessible of his piano or orchestral music. The original DGG LP issue certainly played a part in making these pieces better known.

The Violin Sonata is given a most idiomatic performance, as Joseph Silverstein has a quicksilver manner of presenting the succession of what can seem fragmentary motifs that makes their exposition coherent. The ear is drawn in and the phrases succeed each other with a persuasive emotional logic. There is particularly brilliant playing in the finale, at an excitingly brisk tempo. Silverstein has a most attractive sound, with rather more rapid vibrato than we usually hear nowadays, but it suits his way with the work nonetheless. The piano playing of Michael Tilson Thomas is more than serviceable, even if he never asserts himself as the equal partner in a duo.

In fact Tilson Thomas might perhaps have given a more commanding call to attention in the annunciatory opening for piano alone of the Cello Sonata, of which Jules Eskin too gives a very good but slightly sedate account. He has a fine tone – the front desks of the Boston Symphony, then as now, were an impressive group – and noble phrasing, but the tempi can be a touch stodgy. Thus his timings for the three movements are 4:52, 3:42, and 3:41, while Renaud Capuçon on a recent Erato disc takes 3:49, 3:06 and 3:23. This feels very different, and a bit more idiomatic, in a concise sonata. The best movement from Eskin is the finale, marked animé, which still feels quite lively enough at his speed, even though the slower passages linger somewhat.

The wonderfully translucent Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp suffers no such problems with tempi, and generates the right momentum whenever it needs to do so, but never at the expense of expressive charm. Rarely if ever can such a range of fleeting poetic feeling have been conjured from such an unlikely combination of instruments, and these players are alive to its world of nuance and suggestion. This is for me the most successful item on the disc. There is also the brief (35 bars) competition piece Syrinx, for solo flute, where the vibrato of Doriot Anthony Dwyer is more noticeable than in the Sonata, but which is otherwise impressively virtuosic. The original 1970’s sound was excellent, but the SACD remastering is better still, more tactile in its presence and still atmospheric.

However, this same recording was also released in 2007 on Australian Eloquence (ELQ4767703) in a straight stereo transfer, but still sounding very good indeed. It is cheaper and it adds an extra piece, a 1977 recording of a delightful transcription by Benno Sachs for large chamber group of the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. This at least brings the length to 56 minutes. Unless Pentatone’s SACD remastering is essential for you, this is the option to favour.

When this recording came out in 1970 the coupling was very valuable, as the works were still underrepresented in the catalogue. Since then many other recordings have been issued, not least the above-mentioned Erato issue in 2017, which has the same programme but adds a substantial and attractive early work, the twenty-minute Piano Trio in G major of 1880. The performers too are front rank; in addition to Renaud Capuçon, there are Bertrand Chamayou (piano), Edgar Moreau (cello), Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Gerard Caussé (viola) and Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp). That release was a MWI recording of the month (review). But no-one will be disappointed by the performances on this Pentatone disc, or indeed the fine sound.

Roy Westbrook

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