Born August 22, 1862 in St.-Germaine-en-Laye, France, Claude-Achille Debussy was a child prodigy pianist who was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at age 10. Now generally considered to have been the greatest French composer, Debussy is proof that great art can come from terrible human beings. He was supremely self-centered and selfish. Two women -- one his wife -- attempted to kill themselves after he ended his relationships with them in cruelly casual fashion; his behavior was so beyond acceptable norms, even by bohemian French standards, that many of his friends turned their backs on him. In the midst of his greatest personal controversy, when he'd left his wife for a married woman and moved with the latter to England for awhile after to escape the constant recriminations, he wrote his biggest masterpiece, La Mer.
But, of course, there's nothing the French enjoy more than a controversy. Debussy's music was controversial as well. His ideas about harmony displeased his professors at the Conservatory, who were, by and large, the French musical establishment of the era. Harold Schoenberg writes, "In Guiraud's composition class he would sit at the piano making up outlandish chords and refusing to resolve them. He was asked by an exasperated teacher what rules he followed. 'Mon plaisir,' Debussy curtly answered." ["My pleasure."]
His talents could not be ignored. Soon he was hailed or reviled, depending on the speaker's perspective, as the inventor of Impressionism, a term from the art world that Debussy didn't like having attached to his music. His use of then-exotic whole-tone, pentatonic, and modal scales, his penchant for parallel fifths and fourths (long a harmony no-no), and his emancipation of dissonance were all revolutionary and influential. He was writing 20th century music by at least 1892, when he began composing his revolutionary orchestral tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Extreme chromaticism was already familiar from Wagner's Tristan & Isolde, but that was still harmonically determined chromaticism, so Wagner merely strained the bonds of harmony; Debussy broke those bonds.As piano pundit David Dubal put it, "With Debussy, the chord became freed of its necessity to move; a chord became a sensuous experience in itself. With this concept, harmonic progression was no longer required in the traditional sense." Now, however, his works are so established in the mainstream that they're used as mood music.
One can, with just two purchases, get the majority of Debussy's music in superb performances.
This four-CD set, which includes (as annotated above) some additions to the Debussy canon achieved through orchestral arrangements of piano works (though not all that exist), was recorded in 1973-74 and ever since has set the standard in Debussy performance. (Parenthetically, consider how different the orchestrations by others sound from Debussy's own. By the way, not noted above are the orchestrators of pieces when they are the only version, such as the Saxophone Rhapsody [sketched by Debussy, completed by Jean Roger-Ducasse). The orchestra plays with French lightness and sports some of the distinctively tangy timbres of old-time French orchestras without overdoing it. At the helm, Martinon (an underrated conductor if there ever was) achieves magical results by combining clear and balanced textures -- no Impressionist mushiness here; the Impressionism comes from Debussy's astutely judged combinations of instrumental colors, not from fuzziness -- acutely precise rhythms and organically contoured flow, and keenly judged structural proportions. Though his degree of control is absolute, he deploys it in a natural, unforced manner, letting the music breath even as he keeps the lines taut. His interpretations of the famous works are so uniformly superb that you really could have just this set and have all the Debussy orchestral recordings you need -- though, since there are other ways of playing La Mer, etc., I will make further recommendations. Still, you can put Martinon's La Mer up against anyone's, no matter how famous, and it is not surpassed in beauty, drama, or integrity.
And for Debussy's complete piano music, there's now this six-CD box set that combines Jean-Yves Thibaudet's fine set of the solo piano works with the two-piano music played by Alfons & Aloys Kontarsky and Anne Shasby & Richard McMahon (some of it transcriptions of orchestral works), Zoltan Kocsis with the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer in the Fantasy for Piano & Orchestra, and various other contributions drawn from the Decca and Deutsche Grammophon catalogs. While not the standard-setter that the Martinon box is, it's quite satisfactory on all accounts.
There are, of course, other performances worth discussing. Orchestrally, I'll focus on Debussy's most important work, La Mer (The Sea), subtitled Three Symphonic Sketches. It is as close as he came to composing a symphony. Had he actually called it a symphony, it could have been justified. Like many French symphonies of the time, it is in three movements ("De l'aube à midi sur la mer" [From Dawn to Mid-day on the Sea], "Jeux de vagues" [Play of the Waves], and "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" [Dialog of the Wind and the Sea]) and is cyclic in form (the first and last movements are thematically tied). While its use of sonata structure is eccentric at best and not really present in some views (as the first movement does not have a recapitulation of its themes), the three movements are emotionally unified and function like a symphony's, and there is definitely more structure than the whims of a tone poem would require. Its depiction of the moods of the ocean is masterful, but never stoops to clichés. I consider alternatives to Martinon in chronological order.
French Orchestral Music: NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini (RCA Red Seal)
Toscanini's advocacy of several of Debussy's works, especially La Mer, goes against several Toscanini stereotypes, but there's no denying the extremely high quality of the results. For Toscanini, Debussy (who was just five years older than the conductor) was a modernist, and he seems to revel in Debussy's new orchestral effects. Toscanini's frequent performances did not go unnoticed by the composer, who even granted the conductor permission to slightly alter the orchestration in one spot. There are three recordings of La Mer by the maestro, but the June 1, 1950 studio session in the French Orchestral Music two-CD set is definitely tops. The sense of mystery in the first movement is palpable, and the tautness of the final movement is outstanding. With equally fine recordings of Iberia, the middle work of Images (made the following day), with a lusciously sensual middle movement, "Les Parfums de la nuit" (Fragrances of the Night); a delicate "Nuages" (Clouds), the first of the Nocturnes (3/15/52 concert); and one of the sexiest takes on Prélude à l'après‑midi d'un faune that you'll ever hear (2/13-14/53 concert with rehearsal patches), this is a set every Debussy fan should own.
Cantelli was Toscanini's greatest protégé, so it's no surprise that his Debussy is also great, which is not to say he's mimicking the older conductor's style. There's arguably a bit more emotional depth beyond just intensity, and a tad more tonal allure -- and definitely a little better recording quality, though still mono. Also here, also excellent: "Nuages" and "Fêtes" from Nocturnes, Prélude à l'après‑midi d'un faune, and symphonic fragments from Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. If you don't mind acquiring a ten-CD box to get it, there's a slightly better Cantelli La Mer from earlier that year in the New York Philharmonic's The Historic Broadcasts 1923 to 1987.
This 1956 recording has a good reputation, and certainly Munch was generally a fine conductor of French music, but I find this performance sonically sludgy, lacking in atmosphere and flow, and quite un-French. It now comes with his Prélude à l'après‑midi d'un faune.
In 1960, RCA got a much better La Mer by calling upon the CSO and its autocratic director Fritz Reiner. It has all the drama, organic flow, clarity, and spectacular sonics that were missing from Munch's effort. (It's yoked to two colorful Respighi triptychs, Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome.)
Boulez is another conductor who's supposed to be good in French music but seems to utterly misunderstand La Mer. And it's not what you'd guess coming from him -- an overly dry, intellectual performance lacking flow. Nope, the problem is that he hams it up, lays on the schmaltz, and tries to make it into a Romantic blockbuster. This is part of a two-CD set that also includes Prélude à l'après‑midi d'un faune, Nocturnes, Printemps, Clarinet Rhapsody, Jeux, Images for Orchestra, and Danses sacrée et profane; few of them (the last two with the Cleveland Orchestra instead) fare much better. After suffering through this 1974 set, pardon me for not having investigated whether his re-recordings for Deutsche Grammophon improved matters.
The sensitive interpretations of La Mer, Prélude à l'après‑midi d'un faune, and Nocturnes recorded in 1988 by Spanish conductor Frühbeck de Burgos make me wonder (not for the first time) why he's not better known. I guess subtlety is an oft-overlooked virtue.
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
This was, as mentioned already, the groundbreaking work that made Debussy famous/notorious. As conductors who are sufficiently aesthetically empathetic to Debussy's style to do a good job with La Mer are generally just as good in Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and for that matter sometimes have it included on the same album, owning the above-recommended Toscanini, Cantelli, and Frühbeck de Burgos collections and/or the Martinon will have you covered on this piece. However, I am also quite fond of Jean Fournet's lascivious 1960 rendition with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which can be found on a Belart/Philips CD that also includes pretty good 1969 performances of La Mer and Nocturnes by the same orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal.
Written in 1897-99, this is another triptych, sort of a predecessor to La Mer, even ending with another evocation of the sea. "Nuages" (Clouds) is the delicately tinted first piece; "Fêtes" (Festivals) is not the continuously raucous piece one might expect from its title, instead presenting a misty view of an evening celebration in which there is a temporary peak in excitement as a procession approaches, moves through, and fades away; the concluding "Sirènes" (Sirens) adds women's chorus to portray the mythical temptresses who drag sailors to their deaths in the depths of the ocean. It's most unfortunate that Toscanini and Cantelli skipped the latter movement; it's been speculated that was because of the extra trouble (and expense) of adding the women's chorus.
Claudio Abbado led a classic performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, now collected on a bargain set in DG's Panorama series (see the String Quartet entry below for the rest of the program). It ranks among the best thanks to his attention to detail, with his light touch in "Sirènes" especially welcome. (The wordless-vocal thing, a novelty at the time, has been overused since then, and it takes a sure hand to avoid troweling on the ooohs too thickly.)
Images for Orchestra
Yet another triptych, and its middle work, Ibéria, is even a triptych itself. This time, though, the pieces are more separate works than related (even if just by mood) movements; Debussy wrote them over a long period of time, finishing the last of them, "Gigues" (Jigs) -- which is played first, and supposed to bring Scotland to mind -- in 1912. The very loose concept that binds the three works is that each conveys an impression of a country, sort of (weirdly, Debussy quotes a French song and a Northumbrian tune -- barely Scottish -- in "Gigues"). The most successful at conveying national flavor is Ibéria, with its pungent Spanish rhythms. Its sections are "Par les rues et par les chemins" (In the streets and by-ways), "Les parfums de la nuit" (The fragrance of the night), and "Le matin d'un jour de fête" (The morning of the festival day). "Roundes de printemps" (Round dances of Spring) uses two French songs. Many conductors perform Ibériaby itself; I've already mentioned Toscanini's wonderful recording (see La Mer, above), and Reiner also excelled in it (on a different album than his La Mer).
Argenta died tragically young, but left some dazzling recordings, including this 1957 Images that, of course, figures on this compilation for its middle work but is delicately tinted throughout, with fine control of the orchestra's timbres and phrasing.
String Quartet in G minor
This 1893 work, one of the first Debussy pieces to gain public performance, is transitional. His debt to Franck is clear in his cyclic thematic structure, but the influence of gamelan in the Scherzo points ahead to Debussy's mature style.
My favorite available version is the classic Melos Quartet recording from 1979. (Were they not out of print, I would also recommend the warmly Romantic interpretations of the Borodin Quartet [on Chandos, undated but from relatively early in their career] and the Galimir Quartet (on Vanguard].) The Melos recording is best acquired on the Debussy two-disc compilation in DG's Panorama series, where there's plenty of other recommendable Debussy as well (I've already mentioned Abbado's Nocturnes). True, not all the performances are well chosen. The textures in Karajan's 1965 La Mer are thick and clotted; Tilson Thomas's Prélude à l'après‑midi d'un faune with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1971 is slightly bland. (I appear to be in the minority regarding those opinions, however.) However, all the non-orchestral tracks are excellent, in particular helping us cover a few more high spots in Debussy's chamber music. BSO principal flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer delivers (from 1970) a ravishing "Syrinx," one of the few solo flute masterpieces; this and the String Quartet are enough to justify the low cost even before the rest of the two-CD set is taken into account. The strange yet wonderful Cello Sonata as rendered in 1962 by Mstislav Rostropovich, with Benjamin Britten on piano, is a compelling performance at the highest level of musicianship. And (looking ahead to the piano works) that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's much-admired limpid tones in the first 12 Preludes (1978) and Sviatoslav Richter's sensitively nuanced Estampes (1963) are included makes it even more of a bargain and a convenience.
I said there are more French renditions of the Cello Sonata; here's an excellent one that kicks off a nicely programmed set of French works. In the second movement, where the cello part imitates guitar, mandolin, flute, and tambourine, Williencourt does so less eruptively than Rostropovich, less dazzlingly perhaps, but more within the fabric of the piece, disrupting its flow less. Both are valid interpretations.
One of the convenient aspects of the CD era's repackaging of things into CD-length programs is that collections such as this came together, combining performances separated by 15 years with no performers in common. From 1962 comes an emotive rendition of the strikingly dark Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp by members of the Melos Ensemble (unrelated to the Melos Quartet). The edition I have only mentions harpist Osian Ellis by name; his slightly sec tone keeps his instrument from sounding clichéd. The uncredited members are flutist Richard Adeney and violist Cecil Aronowitz. (The Melos Ensemble is also heard here in perhaps the finest recording of Ravel's Introduction and Allegro.) In 1977, violinistKyung Wha Chung and pianist Radu Lupu joined forces for the Sonata for Violin & Piano and Franck's Sonata for the same instruments, an apt choice since Franck's cyclical deployment of thematic material influenced Debussy in these sonatas.
I am also -- no surprise here -- a fan of flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal's charmingly impulsive 1951 recording of No. 2 with harpist Odette Le Dentu and violist Pierre Pasquier, which seems to be absent from download/streaming platforms but can be found in the four-CD Rampal collection La Flûte Enchantée (EMI Classics)
Debussy's two sets of 12 Preludes for solo piano (totaling 24, a number that reverberates with Chopinesque significance) were written in 1910 and 1913. By far his greatest gift to the piano literature, they present his evocative music with complete clarity, distilling his style into its purest form. The qualities that led to the Impressionism tag are nowhere more evident. Two perfect examples are "Voiles" (Veils; Book I, No. 2), with its extreme use of the whole-tone scale and then the pentatonic scale, and "Des pas sur la neige" (Footprints in the Snow), which perfectly evokes a quiet winter night. Yet this doesn't mean that these pieces are mushy new-age-type prettiness. One of the most Impressionistic of all, "La Cathédral engloutie" (The Sunken Cathedral; Book I, No. 10) is quite loud -- even bombastic -- in the middle. And his playful side shines through on "La Danse de Puck" (Book I, No. 11) and the Dickensian "Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C." (Book II, No. 9).
There have been many superb Debussy pianists, from Walter Gieseking, Claudio Arrau, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli to Pascal Rogé, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Krystian Zimmerman, for anyone who truly loves the sound of the piano glories in the many subtle effects Debussy created. The late Paul Jacobs (1930-83) ranks high among this company, and this 1978 set is one of the most sensitively shaded recordings of the cycle. He has apt vigor in the lively pieces, but it's in the slower pieces where Jacobs produces the greatest effect. Though he uses especially deliberate tempos in these tracks, his focus is so tight that the music never drags; rather, he uses subtle tonal shadings and exquisite pedal control while giving the notes ample space in which to resound, thus creating a sort of haloed luminescence. The recording quality is an important ally in this, of course; the perspective is close but not dry. With this two-disc set at low mid-price, it is recommendable without the slightest reservation.
Gieseking's 1953 Debussy Preludes, and EMI's box set of his '50s Debussy, get the most raves, apparently because they're A) on an English label, so English critics worship them; B) are in better sound; and C) are easier to find thanks to being on EMI. And if they were the only Gieseking Debussy we had, I'd be in that chorus. But they aren't: his 1936-39 Preludes are the ones to get. Gieseking's art consisted of a finely honed balance of myriad subtleties: his "touch" on the keyboard, his exquisitely nuanced pedaling, digital (fingers, not 1s and 0s) precision, quantum gradations of dynamics, some of the most luscious legato on record. When he made his EMI recordings, it seems as though age had slightly eroded his touch, so it didn't all come together as magically as on his '30s recordings. Debussy has never sounded more luminous than here, or better lived up to the "Impressionist" label. There's background hiss, of course, but while these recordings aren't as sonically clean as the '50s ones (which aren't exactly flawless themselves), listeners can soon become acclimated to their sound (with the exception of a scratchy "Valse, la plus que lente" from 1927, by far the oldest item here), and it is quite easy to listen past their dimness to hear dazzlingly three-dimensional pianism. Besides both books of the Preludes and that 1927 78, this two-disc set also includes equally stellar renditions of Estampes, Suite Bergamasque, Children's Corner, two pieces each from Images Sets I and II, "Rêverie," Two Arabesques, and "L'Isle Joyeuse."
Far more austere than the Preludes, and more technically challenging as well, the Etudes (1915) are dedicated to the memory of Chopin, and like the Polish pianist-composer's Etudes, they present technical hurdles in the context of great music, sufficiently varied in mood and elevated in creativity that they are no mere exercises.
The 1992 recording of this great Italian pianist/modernist projects magisterial coolness even as every difficulty is overcome with elegant ease. (You also get the finest performance of Berg's Piano Sonata.)
Uchida's 1989 recording, equally adept technically, imbues the music with more passion and poetry.
Jacobs's 1976 album of the Etudes is warm and witty, less concerned with awing the listener, with a more flexible rhythmic pulse. Some tracks he draws out much further than Uchida or, especially, Pollini, bringing those pieces closer to the magical world of the Preludes. It now comes with a 1987 concert recording with Gilbert Kalish of the two-piano triptych En blanc et noir (In Black and White).
Written in 1890, this four-movement suite is Debussy's tribute to the 17th- and 18th-century French clavecinistes. I mention it because the third movement is the famous "Clair de Lune." Thibaud and Gieseking have got you covered on the suite, and as an extract, Moravec makes "Clair de Lune" sound positively heavenly. Some others, such as Pascal Roge, rather overplay it, which in the context of the suite distorts the overall proportions as well.
Pour le piano
This 1901 triptych, long in gestation, was Debussy's coming-out party as a composer for piano. It looks backward (to the Classical era) and forward (to his further development of his personal style, hinted at here with some deployment of whole-tone scales), and most of all it aims to dazzle the listener. The opening Prelude is brilliantly flashy; the middle Sarabande is affectingly archaic; the closing Toccata even more brilliant than the opening.
Ivan Moravec (Philips)
The Moravec volume in Philips' Great Pianists of the 20th Century series includes his 1969 recording of Pour le piano, with the most luscious and brooding Sarabande you'll ever heard. Nor does he stint on the virtuoso fireworks of the outer movements. (More on Moravec below.)
Images & Estampes
Not the same as the Images for Orchestra, these are three earlier triptychs for solo piano. Two-thirds of Images (1894) went unpublished in Debussy's lifetime (its second piece was published in a magazine, then revised and used in Pour le piano (1901)). For decades residing in the private collection of pianist Alfred Cortot, it was not published until 1978, and has rarely been recorded even since then. It is a bit of a transitional work, its gestures less revolutionary than in his later works. Book I (1905) and Book II (1907) are fully in Debussy's mature style. Coming between them, the triptych Estampes (as in ink stamps), published in 1903, is believed to contain some earlier works. It is especially notable for its first piece, "Pagodes," which directly imitates the sound of gamelan, complete with use of the pentatonic scale. There is Orientalism as well in some of the Images, most clearly No. 3 of Book II, "Poissons d'or" (Goldfish), inspired by the Japanese lacquer plaque that is on the cover of Jacobs's album.
Jacobs's 1979 LP featured the first American recording of the 1894 Images. He presents it, Estampes, and Images, Books I & II in their publication order. In all four sets, he plays with grace and poetic feeling.
The superb Czech pianist Ivan Moravec recorded Images, Books I & II and Estampes in 1982, also including a Prelude, Book I No. 6, "Des pas sur la neige" (Footsteps in the snow). His touch is exquisite, and his presentation even more beautiful and poetic than Jacobs's, or anyone's since Gieseking. His subtle technique is perfectly suited to Debussy, and his 1960s recordings of Debussy for Connoisseur Society (the Pour le piano recommended above was originally on that label), briefly reissued on CD by VAI, are delightful. It's easier to find the LPs than the CD; there has been no download release yet, alas.
By the way, there is one set of Debussy piano works I feel obliged to warn you against, especially if you go into this thinking that a French pianist will have an edge in this music. There was a two-disc set on Sony Classical in France of 1950s recordings of the complete Preludes, Estampes, Images Books I & II, "L'isle joyeuse," "Masques," Children's Corner, and Two Arabesques by Robert Casadesus. His tone is ugly, he favors fast tempos with no expressiveness, and there's distortion at higher volumes. It's the worst Debussy playing I've ever heard (aside from my own, alas).
Pelléas et Mélisande
In his youth, Debussy had been greatly impressed by Wagner's operas and more than once made the summer trek to Bayreuth. Later he broke from Wagner worship, determined to find his own way. Nonetheless, there is still something of Wagner in Debussy's operatic style, specifically the focus on moving the drama forward. If anything, Debussy did so even more insistently. In his operatic setting of Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande, written and rewritten over the course of almost a decade (1893-1901), there are no arias; everything is a sort of speech-song that somewhat anticipated Schoenberg's Sprechstimme. In a way, it looks back to the very first pre-1600 Italian operas' attempt to revive that era's idea of what ancient Greek theater had been like. As a result, despite the shimmering orchestral accompaniment, most opera fans consider it too dry, too subdued, too unmelodic -- but it has a cult following, and its very esotericism practically guarantees that anyone who makes the effort to record it believes deeply in its merits, which means that though there are relatively few recordings available, most of them are excellent in their various ways.
There can be endless debate over which P&M is the top choice, but it has long been clear that the one indispensible set is this one from 1941, the first complete recording. True, the sound is rather confined mono, with the orchestra at times a bit buried behind the voices, but all the singers understand the demands of the style well and, with Desormière, create a most atmospheric performance. The most recent edition adds some historically significant material. Primary in the context of P&M is Mary Garden -- who sang the role of Mélisande in the world premiere -- singing "Mes longs cheveux descendent" from Act 3, with the piano accompanist being Debussy himself. Garden and Debussy are also heard performing three songs from his cycle Ariettes oubliées. Granted, the sound is primitive and the surface noise and swish of the 78s sometimes intrude, but isn't that a small price to pay for unimpeachable authenticity? Filling out the album nicely are 1936 recordings of 14 Debussy songs by sung by Maggie Teyte, accompanied by pianist Alfred Cortot.
The Forgotten Songs title that adorns this album is a translation of the well-known "Ariettes Oubliées," but in fact some of the first dozen pieces here do qualify as "forgotten." Until this release, the 12 songs Debussy wrote for soprano Marie-Blanche Vasnier while he was still a student had never been recorded as a group in Debussy's order and in the original versions (the collection, which also contains a vocal duet not included here, was not published during Debussy's lifetime, but he later revised some of the songs), so on that basis alone this is an interesting as well as generous program. Upshaw handles the coloratura writing well -- it requires some impressive vocal nimbleness in the upper register. Her cool, understated style (always so attentive to the words she's singing) is also well-suited to two later song sets, which are much less florid but also more profound. This album offers a good cross-section of the French composer's song output -- the early works, then the six Verlaine settings from the next period of his life (though their later revisions, from when they were first published as a set 15 years after their first appearance, are used here), and then the fully mature Baudelaire songs, still from the same decade (the 1880s) as the other two sets yet with much richer harmonies. Levine proves an extremely sympathetic and sensitive piano partner throughout this delicious album. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.