WORKS: Music for the Prix de Rome: Le gladiateur; Invocation; La damoiselle élue; Printemps; Le printemps; Salut printemps; L’enfant prodigue
PERFORMER: Guylaine Girard (soprano), Sophie Marilley (mezzo), Bernard Richter (tenor), Alain Buet (baritone), Marie-Josèphe Jude, Jean-François Heisser (piano); Flemish Radio Choir; Brussels Philharmonic/Hervé Niquet
CATALOGUE NO: GCD 922206
Tracing Debussy’s progress from the derivative chorus Salut printemps of 1882 to the masterly and utterly individual cantata La damoiselle élue of 1888 is a fascinating journey. But one of my few reservations about this set is that the piano part of Debussy’s vocal score for La damoiselle makes fierce demands on the player in maintaining the flow and keeping the dynamics down. Even though Jean-François Heisser struggles manfully, much of it is too loud.
Elsewhere we are given excellent modern arrangements for piano duet. In particular Cyril Bonger’s reconstruction of Printemps for piano duet and mixed choir is delightful, a vast improvement on Busser’s orchestral version, albeit made following Debussy’s instructions. Here we get a real feel for the ‘awakening into new life’ the composer spoke of.
Apart from one strained high B in Invocation, for which he may be forgiven, tenor Bernard Richter makes a beautiful sound and uses the words with great sensitivity. Guylaine Girard is rather squally, especially above the stave, but the chorus sings with admirable precision and élan.
Of the two early cantatas, Le gladiateur has better moments than one might have expected: bloodthirsty sentiments bring on trombones, tremolo strings and diminished sevenths, but lyrical ones point to the future, and most immediately to L’enfant prodigue, heard here in its initial 1884 version. Nearly 25 years later, Debussy polished up the scoring but left the vocal lines almost untouched. As well he might. Roger Nichols