Debussy Sonatas and Trios: Unforgettable Color and Texture

In this 100th anniversary year of the death of Claude Debussy (1862–1918), one of the finest recordings of his music released so far is Erato's Debussy Sonatas & Trios (Erato C565142). Appropriately recorded in Paris, in two different sounding venues, with an all-star French lineup—Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Gerard Caussé, viola; Edgar Moreau, cello; Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp; and Bertrand Chamayou, piano—the recording is replete with the unique atmosphere, color, and textures that make Debussy's music so unforgettable.

The only qualified downer on the program is the opening work, the Cello Sonata in d, L 135. Composed in 1915, after Debussy went through a fallow period filled with doubt, it found him simultaneously dealing with both the effects of the cancer that eventually took his life and the realities of World War I. Though its opening may be rather joyless and punctuated with consternation—the wonderful, subtly perfumed atmosphere and seductive sensuality that characterize many of his other works is replaced, at times, by sadness, fury, and what sounds like sighs from the cello in the middle movement's moderately animated serenade—there is much beauty here.

Syrinx (1913), Debussy's unforgettable piece for solo flute, was written as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey's play Psyché. Once you learn that you're hearing the flute of the God Pan, whose playing so captivates two nymphs that they begin to dance with each other, you'll understand how such a short piece could be so seductive and moving. Recorded in Salle Colonne, with Pahud's flute set somewhat back from the microphone(s) in a naturally resonant acoustic, it is echt Debussy.

The Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, also recorded in Salle Colonne, may date from 1915, but it shares much with pieces written earlier. Listen how, toward the start of the first movement, flutist Pahud masterfully turns over his line to cellist Moreau without a break. The change of color and texture is breathtaking, with the airy roundness of the flute replaced by that of the more sharply focused viola. Some of the melodies in the opening Pastorale are timeless, and others quintessentially French. Debussy seems to have shaken himself out of his despair, because parts of the Interlude are quite playful, and the Finale's vitality is marvelous.

Debussy's last major composition was the Sonata for Violin and Piano. Written in 1917, and premiered with Debussy at the piano, it was recorded in Studios Davout, with instruments closer to the mikes. (Ditto for the Cello Sonata and the youthful Piano Trio.) While I wish an older piano, with sound authentic to Debussy's era, had been used here and elsewhere, the beauty of the performance and careful attention to color override such concerns. The dolorous, unmistakably French feel of the music, the lovely flourishes and lightness of the finale, and the exuberance of the conclusion are treasurable.

From this end-of-life work, we move well back in time to 1880, when 18-year old Debussy wrote his Piano Trio in G. He was in Italy, living at the home of Nadezhda von Meck, who was a major patron of Tchaikovsky. The Trio was thought lost until 1982, when it was discovered amongst the papers of one of Debussy's pupils.

The influence of the past, as well as the direction in which Debussy was fast moving, are equally apparent in this music. Some critics have panned it, but I find it extremely warm and beautiful. The third movement may be rhapsodic in the old style, and the finale passionate in ways that smack of romanticism, but there is clearly enough of the Debussy to come to make the work unique. Unless your nose is higher than your forehead, you will probably love it.

"Color" is, no doubt, an audiophile buzzword. Yet there is no other way to describe the music of a composer whose awareness of shimmering textures and the infinite shades of pastels is supreme. When the 24/96 recording is played on a highly resolving system, your appreciation for this achievement will be vast. This is a must-hear.

dalethorn's picture

There are moments in the allegros etc. where the score heats up some, but the majority of this recording is what I'd describe as very languid and intimate. For someone who likes that sort of thing, they could scarcely do better than this - the quality is top-notch all around.

pbarach's picture

"Listen how, toward the start of the first movement, flutist Pahud masterfully turns over his line to cellist Moreau without a break."

It's violist Caussé who picks up from Pahud, of course:) Beautiful performances--right up there with the old DG recording of the Bostom Symphony Chamber Players.

dougotte's picture

Jason, I appreciate you letting us know about this release. It looks like it's right up my alley.

dougotte's picture

It's a very nice album; very sensitive performances. I realized I have other SA-CD recordings of two pieces: Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (Boston Symphony Chamber Players); and Sonata for Violin and Piano (Midori). If I get overly ambitious, I'll compare them.