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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Harmonie du Soir - Mélodies
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano)
Stéphane Degout (baritone)
Eugene Asti, Alain Planès (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Teldex Studio, Berlin.
Full texts and English translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902306.07 [2 CDs: 125:20]

The French label Harmonia Mundi’s response to the Debussy centenary has been as idiosyncratic as it has been adulatory. Whilst many of the majors have excavated their vaults to produce so-called ‘Complete Editions’ of debatable states of completeness, the Arles label asked several noted members of their roster to devise and record Debussy programmes that both reflect individual enthusiasms and refract how approaches to performing and understanding the composer have developed over the last 100 years. Debussy’s considerable merits as a setter of poetry and vocal composer are often overlooked, somewhat inevitably given his revolutionary contributions to harmony and to instrumental colour, so this splendid two-disc anthology, incorporating many of his finest songs in the context of their complete cycles, provides a more than welcome reminder. There are some forty songs here, as well as four piano pieces which act as judiciously-placed interludes; if the thought of a two hour mélodie recital featuring just one composer sounds daunting, the quality of performance on offer here and the intrinsic interest of the repertoire may well confound listeners’ expectations; in any case the programme is so beautifully varied and well-planned as to justify treating the discs as two individual one hour recitals.

Of the four individuals involved here, the mellifluous Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser is paired with the versatile American accompanist, Eugene Asti who also delivers a chilly, atmospheric account of Debussy’s final piano work ‘Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon’, the piece which turned up in 2001 and was found to have been written for the local coal-merchant who managed to supply the composer’s household during the terrible winter of 1916/17. The elegant French baritone Stéphane Degout is accompanied by veteran Debussy specialist Alain Planès who contributes the three Images oubliées as interludes which further provide occasional respite from the songs. Another interesting feature is that with the exception of the three early Verlaine mélodies from 1891 Karthäuser and Asti perform all the items present that were composed prior to 1900, while Degout and Planès take on those written afterwards.

Disc one opens with the very first piece Debussy had published. ‘Nuit d’étoiles’ is one of many early settings of Théodore de Banville, a symbolist poet whose appeal to the young Debussy was presumably bound up with his interest in Marie Vasnier, a married student in the singing class he accompanied, and with whom he would eventually have an adulterous affair. Inevitably, the song amounts to juvenilia compared to his later masterpieces, but its charms are amplified by Asti’s lightness of touch in the harp-like arpeggios and the hovering, sensual quality of Karthäuser’s high soprano. Another ‘strummed’ accompaniment supports the wonderful Paul Verlaine setting ‘Mandoline’, and here Asti truly evokes the sound of the instrument, while Karthäuser embodies the flirtatiousness implicit in the text. The two three song sets of Fêtes galantes are separated by thirteen years, and Book 1 comprises Debussy’s second thoughts on the three Verlaine poems. Gone are the obvious Wagnerisms of the 1882 settings, and although ‘Fantoches’ remains virtually untouched, apart from its conclusion, both ‘En sourdine’ and ‘Clair de lune’ sound altogether more advanced. This ‘En sourdine’ is written for a lower voice than the original version, and Karthäuser’s voice here conveys a dusky sensuality which is most alluring. Her final contribution to the first disc is one of the highlights of the set, a ravishing account of the heady Chansons de Bilitis. Last year I was greatly taken with Marianne Crebessa’s sultry account of these songs on her outstanding “Secrets” album with Fazil Say (review). If Crebassa’s smoky voice more overtly projects the erotic undertones of ‘La Flûte de Pan’, the beauty of Karthäuser’s reading resides in the delicate, recitation-like delivery of Pierre Louÿs’ suggestive text; the effect is no less sensual, though perhaps more discreetly so. The same could be said about the melancholy third song ‘Le Tombeau des naïades’. Eugene Asti’s accompaniment in these songs is unfailingly responsive.

The lion’s share of the content on the first disc, however is taken by Degout and Planès, who perform four short cycles. The earliest of these, the Trois Mélodies de Verlaine of 1891 emerged at the height of Debussy’s lifelong fascination with this poet. Degout’s rich, earthy baritone stylishly conveys the proto-Pelléasisms of these intense songs; Planès remains a magnificent Debussyan, the rolling waves in ‘La mer est plus belle que les cathedrals’ are instantly evoked. He is also attentive to the rippling gamelan touches of the brief ‘L'échelonnement des haies moutonne à l'infini’, yet it is in the middle number, ‘Le son du cor s'afflige vers les bois’ (‘The sound of the horn mourns towards the woods’) that Debussy truly achieves a matchless symbiosis of words and music, and where Degout is supremely receptive to the recitative-like setting of Verlaine’s precise language. The melancholy conveyed here lingers long after the song’s conclusion. In the second book of Fêtes galantes Degout meltingly projects the symbolist rapture of ‘Les Ingénus’ while Planès’ tentative accompaniment suggests the autumn breeze; meanwhile a spirit of pained nostalgia soaks their account of the haunting ‘Colloque sentimental’. While Verlaine’s poetry dominates this first disc, Debussy’s burgeoning interest in medieval poetry is represented in its two concluding cycles, the brief but eventful Trois chansons de France, and the better-known Trois Ballades de François Villon of 1910. These wordy epics can sag in less committed hands, but Degout’s accounts are riveting; the unremitting bleakness of ‘Ballade de Villon à s'amye’ is compelling in its barely suppressed fury.

In terms of quantity Degout and Planès play second fiddle to their collaborators on the second disc, but still contribute supremely insightful accounts of the brief settings of Tristan L’Hermite in ‘Le promenoir des deux amants’ and of Debussy’s final songs , the Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. These settings represent Debussy’s muse in its most pared-down and refined form and Degout’s rich, svelte tones fervently project the often exposed vocal lines of the outer songs ‘Soupir’ and ‘Éventail’. These two sets are preceded by a judiciously made selection of individual settings of a variety of poets, sublimely rendered by Sophie Karthäuser and Eugene Asti. Highlights include two settings of Paul Bourget, ‘Les cloches’ from 1891 and particularly the even earlier ‘Beau Soir’ which is as hushed and yearning as in any recording I have ever heard. The disc is completed by a magisterial account of Debussy’s most extended cycle, the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. In these songs one can perhaps detect the shadow of Wagner more overtly than in Debussy’s other vocal works of the time, both in the shaping of the vocal lines and in the density of the quasi-orchestral piano writing, notwithstanding the Frenchman’s more idiosyncratic approach to harmony. ‘Le Balcon’ thus emerges here as a mini symphonic poem, its seven absorbing minutes exquisitely coloured by Karthäuser’s refulgent tones and the epic sweep of Asti’s accompaniment. The following ‘Harmonie du Soir’, which gives this issue its title, is no less impactful in its intensity and perhaps benefits from its more concise design.

Both pairs of performers on these discs emerge as Debussyans to their very core. It is a rare delight to encounter almost half of the French master’s songs in performances as carefully conceived as they are committed, especially since his achievement in the field of the Mélodie is the area of his canon which is arguably least known to listeners. There are abundant treasures to be enjoyed here. The recording is warm and natural and continues the fine sonic traditions of this label. This beautifully produced set is a treat indeed and marks another splendid contribution from Harmonia Mundi to the Debussy centenary.

Richard Hanlon

1 Nuit d'étoiles (1880) [2:30] [SK, EA]
2-4 Trois Mélodies de Verlaine, L. 81 (1891) [7:36] [SD, AP]
I. La mer est plus belle que les cathedrals [2:40]
II. Le son du cor s'afflige vers les bois [3:21]
III. L'échelonnement des haies moutonne à l'infini [1:35]
5 Mandoline (1882) [1:41] [SK, EA]
6-8 Fêtes galantes Livre I, L. 80 (1891) [6:32] [SK, EA]
I. En sourdine (2nd version) [2:34]
II. Fantoches (2nd version) [1:22]
III. Clair de lune (2nd version) [2:36]
9-11 Fêtes galantes Livre II, L. 104 (1904) [9:05] [SD, AP]
I. Les Ingénus [2:40]
II. Le Faune [2:08]
III. Colloque sentimental [4:17]
12 Images oubliées, L. 87: II. Sarabande (1894) [4:46] [AP]
13-15 Trois chansons de Bilitis (1897-98) [8:05] [SK, EA]
I. La Flûte de Pan [2:22]
II. La Chevelure [3:11]
III. Le Tombeau des naïades [2:32]
16-18 Trois chansons de France (1904) [6:08] [SD, AP]
I. Rondel, Le temps a laissé son manteaux [1:33]
II. La Grotte [2:17]
III. Rondel, Pour ce que Plaisance est morte [2:18]
19-21 Trois Ballades de François Villon, L. 119 (1910) [11:34] [SD, AP]
I. Ballade de Villon à s'amye [4:37]
II. Ballade que Villon fait à la requeste de sa mère [4:29]
III. Ballade des femmes de Paris [2:28]

1-2 Deux Romances (1891) [3:31] [SK, EA]
I. L'âme évaporée [1:41]
II. Les Cloches [1:50]
3 Les Angélus (1891) [2:04] [SK, EA]
4 Dans le jardin (1891) [2:23] [SK, EA]
5 Images oubliées: Lent (1894) [3:58] [AP]
6-8 Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913) [7:26] [SD, AP]
I. Soupir [2:49]
II. Placet futile [2:17]
III. Éventail [2:20]
9 Beau Soir (1880) [2:13] [SK, EA]
10 Voici que le printemps (Romance) (1884) [2:24] [SK, EA]
11 Paysage sentimental (1883) [2:45] [SK, EA]
12 Images oubliées: Quelques aspects de 'Nous n'irons plus au bois' (1884) [3:53] [AP]
13 Fleur des blés (André Girod) (1880) [1:55] [SK, EA]
14 La Belle au bois dormant (1890) [3:06] [SK, EA]
15-17 Le promenoir des deux amants (1904-1910) [6:14] [SD, AP]
I. Auprès de cette grotte sombre [2:21]
II. Crois mon conseil, chère Climène [1:51]
III. Je tremble en voyant ton visage [2:02]
18 Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon (1917) [2:00] [EA]
19-23 Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1887-89) [23:38] [SK, EA]
I. Le Balcon [7:16]
II. Harmonie du soir [3:47]
III. Le Jet d'eau [5:06]
IV. Recueillement [4:37]
V. La Mort des amants [2:52]



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