Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott
Alice Sara Ott (Photo by Ester Haase)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Claude Debussy: Les Trois Sonates (The Late Works) – Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt (Audio video)

Isabelle Faust (violin), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Javier Perianes (piano), Xavier de Maistre (harp), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Magali Mosnier (flute), and Tanguy de Williencourt (piano) interpret Claude Debussy's the Three Sonatas (Sonata for violin and piano in G minor, Sonata for flute, viola and harp in F major, and Sonata for cello and piano in D minor), and four piano pieces (Berceuse héroïque, Page d'album, Élégie, and Les Soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon). Recorded in 2016 (December), 2017 (June) and 2018 (January-February) at Médiapôle Saint-Césaire, Impasse de Mourgues, Arles, France.

Described as "testamentary" on its back cover, the latest release in Harmonia Mundi's Debussy anniversary series is perhaps more an act of commemorative reflection than an overt celebration of his genius. It gathers together, by no means for the first time on disc, the Three Sonatas, written between 1915 and 1917 as the First World War destroyed Debussy's world and cancer slowly ravaged his body. They're framed and separated here, however, by his four last, rarely heard piano pieces, all of them ostensibly pièces d'occasion, though they're linked by a deep, sometimes despairing sadness that reveals much about the anguish of his final years.

Three of them formed his contribution to the war effort. The sombre Berceuse héroïque was commissioned, along with pieces by Saint-Saëns, Mascagni and Elgar, by the Daily Telegraph for inclusion in a volume entitled King Albert's Book, published in support of the beleaguered monarchy of occupied Belgium. The manuscript of Élégie pour piano was intended to be sold to raise money for war relief, while Page d'album was written for performance at a charity concert for "Vêtement du blessé" ("Clothes for the wounded"), for which his wife worked as a volunteer. The saddest of the four is Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, Debussy's last work for piano, written during the bitter winter of 1916-1917 as a gift to his coal supplier, one M. Tronquin, in the hope that the latter would furnish him with enough fuel to keep warm.

Juxtaposed with the sonatas, they throw into relief the ambiguities of the latter, with their mixture of retrospection, fantasy and innovation. The Sonata for flute, viola and harp sounds more than ever like a final, nostalgic evocation of the worlds of Faune and Bilitis here: the performance is relaxed, fractionally too much so in the first movement, perhaps, but it tingles with sensuousness and the shifts in colour are all beautifully realised. Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov's account of the Violin Sonata, Debussy's last completed score, embraces exquisite fragility and strength in equal measure, the finale gathering itself for one last moment of assertion at the end. Jean-Guihen Queyras and Javier Perianes's performance of the Cello Sonata, noble in manner and grand in scale, balances the austere grief of the opening movement with understated wit in the Sérénade and nervous energy in the finale. Tanguy de Williencourt, meanwhile, binds the disc together with the four piano pieces, played with admirable restraint and quiet, if unsparing intensity. Listen to it in a single sitting, and in the right playing order: it's extraordinarily moving.

Source: Tim Ashley (

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Les Trois Sonates
(The Late Works)

1. [Troisième] Sonate pour violon et piano (1917)
Sol mineur / G minor / G-Moll

i. Allegro vivo
ii. Intermède. Fantasque et léger
iii. Finale. Très animé

2. Berceuse héroïque (November 1914)
"Pour rendre hommage à S. M. le roi Albert 1er de Belgique et à ses soldats"

Pour piano. Modéré sans lenteur

3. Page d'album - Pour l'Œuvre du "Vêtement du blessé" (1915)

Pour piano. Modéré

4. [Deuxième] Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (1915)
Fa majeur / F major / F-Dur

i. Pastorale. Lento, dolce rubato
ii. Interlude. Tempo di minuetto
iii. Finale. Allegro moderato ma risoluto

5. Élégie (1915)

Pour piano. Lent et douloureux

6. [Première] Sonate pour violoncelle et piano (July-August 1915)
Ré mineur / D minor / D-Moll

i. Prologue. Lent. Sostenuto e molto risoluto
ii. Sérénade. Modérément animé. Fantasque et léger
iii. Finale. Animé. Léger et nerveux

7. Les Soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon (February-March 1917)

Pour piano. Lent et rêveur

Isabelle Faust, violon Stradivarius "Belle au bois dormant"
Alexander Melnikov, piano (1)
Jean-Guihen Queyras, violoncelle
Javier Perianes, piano (6)
Xavier de Maistre, harpe Érard style Louis XVI de la fin du xixe siècle (prêtée par Les Siècles)
Antoine Tamestit, alto Stradivarius "Mahler", 1672 (prêté par la Fondation Habisreutinger), archet Nicolas Maire, 1835
Magali Mosnier, flûte Louis Lot no 2862, 1880 (prêtée par Bernard Duplaix)
Tanguy de Williencourt, piano (2, 3, 5, 7)

Recorded in 2016 (December), 2017 (June) and 2018 (January-February) at Médiapôle Saint-Césaire, Impasse de Mourgues, Arles, France

harmonia mundi 2018

(HD 1080p – Audio video)

The outbreak of the First World War at the end of July 1914 plunged Debussy into deep distress. Tormented by the cancer that was eventually to kill him and the disasters of the conflict, he had the greatest difficulty in continuing his work, as he wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand, on 21 September 1914: "I won't talk about two months during which I haven't written a note, nor touched a piano: that is of no importance compared to current events, I'm well aware of the fact, but I can't help thinking about it with sadness... at my age, time lost is lost for ever". Fortunately, the year 1915 brought him a new lease of life, as he wrote in September to his friend the conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht. He justified his delay in replying to a previous letter by explaining that he was "learning music all over again": "It's a fine thing, you must admit! It's even finer than people think it is in all those different Societies: National, International, and other low dens... The sum total of emotions that one can derive from well-disposed harmony is impossible to find in any other art! Forgive me! Forgive me! I give the impression I'm discovering music, but, very humbly, that is rather my situation". For, during a summer spent in Pourville in Normandy, Debussy regained his creativity and composed in the space of four months En blanc et noir for two pianos and the twelve Études for piano solo. In addition to this, there were two chamber works: a sonata for cello and piano and another for flute, viola and harp. This choice is all the more unexpected in that Debussy had steered clear of chamber music for more than twenty years.

The last work he had written in the genre was none other than his only String Quartet (1893). But this decision owed nothing to chance, and indicated his desire to revive a French tradition of the eighteenth century. Debussy planned to write "Six Sonates pour divers instruments", scored for forces as varied as oboe, horn and harpsichord or trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano. The diversity of the instruments chosen, the introduction of a harpsichord and the notion of a collection of six works were symbolic of the tribute he wished to pay to the music of Couperin and Rameau. Moreover, he was to ask his publisher not only to imitate the title pages of the French harpsichord books of the eighteenth century, but also to print on them the words "Claude Debussy, musicien français". Unfortunately, only the first three sonatas were to be completed. Although we do not know exactly when Debussy began composing the Sonata for cello and piano, we do know that he finished it on 3 August 1915. Its style reflects the composer's contrasting feelings: the war and its trail of horrors, the profound joy of composing again. The sombre gravity of the first movement is followed by a "Sérénade" marked "Fantasque et léger" (whimsical and light), with mercurial changes of character, mingling humour and tenderness. This leads directly into the passionate Finale, with the marking "léger, nerveux" (light, vigorous).

It was with a certain feeling of pride – rare in Debussy – that he wrote about this sonata to his  publisher on 15 August: "It is not for me to judge its excellence, but I like its proportions and form, almost classical in the good sense of the word". Immediately after completing the Cello Sonata, Debussy began composing the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, which he completed in Pourville on September 14. The three movements of this triptych with its unusual scoring exude a perfume of nostalgia, as he confided to his friend Robert Godet in 1916: "Within a few days, you will receive the Sonata for flute, viola and harp. It belongs to that time when I still knew how to write music. It even recalls a Claude Debussy of many years ago, the Debussy of the Nocturnes, it seems to me". Yet the atmosphere of this sonata is reminiscent not so much of the Nocturnes, but rather of the incidental music to the Chansons de Bilitis, which dates from that same period (1900) and whose musical material he had reused in the Épigraphes antiques of July 1914. Working from thematic cells intermingled in the latter work, Debussy constantly varies and renews the musical discourse, which contributes to achieving the desired goal, the clarity and elegance of French music, as he asserted in a letter of October 1915: "Where are our old clavecinistes, in whom there is so much real music? They possessed the secret of that profound grace, that emotion without epilepsy, which we renounce like ungrateful children..." Despite his creative block, Debussy had contributed to the "war effort" since the beginning of hostilities by composing, in November 1914, a Berceuse héroïque (Heroic lullaby) for piano at the request of the English novelist Hall Caine. This was intended for a volume in tribute to the King of the Belgians Albert I, King Albert's Book, published by the Daily Telegraph, which assembled occasional works by writers such as Henri Bergson, Anatole France, John Galsworthy and Maurice Maeterlinck and composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns, André Messager, Ignaz Paderewski, Pietro Mascagni and Edward Elgar. As Debussy underlined in one of his letters, "This Berceuse is melancholic, discreet; the Brabançonne [the Belgian national anthem] is not bellowed out in the piece. It is a simple calling card, with no other pretensions than to pay tribute to so much patient suffering".

He repeated the experience in December 1915 with the Élégie, a sombre piece that testifies to the composer's despair. Its autograph, probably sold at auction for charity, is lost, but was reproduced in facsimile in 1915 in Pages inédites sur la femme et la guerre (Unpublished pages on women and the war), a sumptuous presentation volume (livre d'or) dedicated to Queen Alexandra, the British Queen Mother. The piece entitled Pour l'Œuvre du "Vêtement du blessé" was conceived in June of the same year for a charity concert organised by the "Vêtement du blessé" (Clothes for the wounded) association in which his wife Emma was active. He offered her the manuscript with the following dedication: "Pour le ‘vêtement’ de ma petite Mienne son Claude" (For the "garment" of my little wife, her Claude). As for the manuscript of Les Soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon (the title, "Evenings lit by the glow of coals", is a quotation from Le Balcon, one of the Baudelaire poems that Debussy had set to music in January 1888), his final piano work, which dates from February-March 1917, it served as a bargaining chip to obtain bags of coal from M. Tronquin, a connoisseur of music and autographs!

Aside from these occasional pieces, in 1916 and 1917 Debussy also set about composing his third and last sonata, for violin and piano. He found its conception, especially that of the third movement, particularly difficult, as is shown by his correspondence with his publisher. After months of hesitation over the finale, Debussy informed Robert Godet of the completion of the work in May 1917: "I have – at last! – finished the Sonata for violin and piano... By a very human contradiction, it is full of joyous tumult. In future, beware of works that seem to hover in the open sky; often they have rotted in the darkness of a morose brain... An example is the end of this same sonata, which went through the oddest distortions to end up with the simple working of an idea that turns back on itself". This, Debussy's last completed work, marks the quintessence of his language in the rapid succession of thematic cells that follow one another with innovative effects of sonority between the piano and the violin, but also passages of a very inward, griefstricken lyricism. Although very ill, the composer gave the first performance with the violinist Gaston Poulet at the Salle Gaveau on 5 May 1917. In September 1917, he noted with bitterness and sadness that since the blissful summer of 1915 when he thought he had "overcome the curse", he had composed little: "What has happened since? I almost dare not think of it! But I am still sick and the catalogue of my works has not increased much! On the other hand: I'm a year older... That's not exactly promising for my future, is it? I absolutely must find a way to get out of this, to shake out the kind of soot that seems to be clogging my brain, otherwise I will go for a walk in the other world". Debussy was bedridden from 1 November 1917, and died on 25 March 1918.

Source: Denis Herlin (CD Booklet)

More photos

See also

100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy – All the posts

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