Debussy: Nocturnes; La damoiselle élue; Le martyre de St Sébastien (symphonic fragments)

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WORKS: Nocturnes; La damoiselle élue; Le martyre de St Sébastien (symphonic fragments)
PERFORMER: Dawn Upshaw (soprano)Paula Rasmussen (mezzo-soprano)Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles PO/ Esa-Pekka Salonen
This disc shows quite how long a shadow Wagner’s Parsifal cast over Debussy’s career: its influence can be detected in the instrumentation of the early cantata La damoiselle élue (‘The Blessed Damozel’) and more particularly in the subject matter of the late Le martyre de St Sébastien. The recording also reveals just how far Debussy had forged his own idiom in the intervening decades: while both works share a certain luminosity, the lush Romantic gestures of the Rossetti setting are pared down to a more abstract austerity in Le martyre. The latter work is here represented by the suite of four symphonic fragments, so that the music is denuded of its dramatic context – it would be interesting to see how Esa-Pekka Salonen, who largely adopts a cool and measured approach, coped with the fuller version that was recently recorded so successfully by Michael Tilson Thomas with the LSO. That said, Salonen on this disc elicits accomplished performances from orchestra and chorus alike, and what Dawn Upshaw, as the Blessed Damozel, lacks in sensuality (compared with Jessye Norman, for example) she makes up for in innocence. The account of ‘Nuages’ from the Nocturnes is impressively controlled and affectingly stark. William Humphreys-Jones