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March 25 marked the centennial of the death of the greatest French composer of all time, Claude Debussy. Whether he’ll ever earn the title of “Greatest Composer of All Time, Period,” however, is unlikely, if only because he ignored many of the conventions used to compare and contrast great composers in the first place.
In terms of structure, tonality, texture, and sonority (almost everything, in other words, that makes music music), as well as in terms of his openness to non-European and extra-musical influences, Debussy followed his own rules.
Works such as his tone poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902), his orchestral work La Mer (1903-1905), and his piano suite Suite bergamasque (1890-1905) are often credited with prefiguring the music of the 20th century. But so refined and heightened is their sensuosity that they still sound and feel ahead of—yea, almost outside—their time. It’s no wonder that musicians enjoy bringing them to life.
Over 30 Debussy releases bearing 2018 copyrights have come out so far, with more sure to come. For Debussy novices who find the abundance of options overwhelming, the 33-disc Warner Classics/Parlophone box simply titled Claude Debussy: The Complete Works is a good place to start. (Deutsche Grammophon has a new Debussy box too, the 22-CD, 2-DVD Debussy: Complete Works, but Warner’s is “completer.”)
Highlights abound, both where one would expect to find them (the orchestral works on Discs 14-18, for instance) and elsewhere.
The chamber-music discs (12 and 13) contain especially exquisite renditions of the Musique de scène pour les chansons de Bilitis (with recitations by the late actress Delphine Seyrig), the Sonata for flute, viola, and harp (as performed by Michel Debost, Yehudi Menuhin, and Lily Laskine), and “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (starring Itzhak Perlman’s violin). And on Disc 6, Jean-Pierre Armengaud performs Debussy’s 1893 piano transcription of Raff’s Humoresque en forme de valse with as much “unpercussive” sensitivity as Debussy himself might have.
Actually, thanks to the set’s most pleasant surprise, one needn’t guess at his keyboard technique. Disc 33 pre–sents him playing 14 of his compositions (including five selections from Préludes, Book 1 and the complete Children’s Corner) via piano rolls as well as four of him accompanying Mary Garden, the original Mélisande, via 78 RPM records. If the scratchiness of the latter limits their aesthetic value, the surprisingly expressive capacity of the former more than compensates.
It has been argued that in the rhythms of “The Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk” Debussy forged the first classical-jazz link. The Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi apparently agrees: On his new album Monsieur Claude (A Travel with Claude Debussy) (Bonsaï), and most obviously on its ninth track, “Mr. Golliwogg,” he runs with the assumption.
Accompanied by the double bassist Diego Imbert and the drummer André Ceccarelli—and augmented on five songs by the saxophonist David El Malek and on four by the vocalist Simona Severini—Pieranunzi swings his cool-jazz way through 11 songs based on or inspired by Debussy compositions.
The relationship comes through particularly clearly in “Passepied nouveau” (adapted from one of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque pieces) and in “Nuit d’étoiles” (adapted from Debussy’s setting of a Théodore de Banville poem).
“Passepied nouveau” is fairly straightforward, festooned only with Pieranunzi’s rhythm section and middle-section improvisations. His “Nuit d’étoiles,” on the other hand, explores and develops Debussy’s original, more than doubling its length and coaxing from both El Malek and Severini a sultry breathiness that redefines the essence of de Banville’s starry night.