Sunday 19 April 2015

Debussy: Songs for His Muse - Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper

Debussy: Songs for his muse
Debussy - Songs for his muse: Gillian Keith, Simon Lepper; Deux Elles
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 04 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Debussy's exotic, neglected songs for his first muse

Debussy's early songs are only just starting to get greater currency, and in fact some have only recently made it into print (Nigel Foster's first published edition of Caprice, Rondel chinois, La fille au cheveux de lin was only recently issued). This disc Debussy:Songs for his muse, on Deux-Elles, from soprano Gillian Keith and pianist Simon Lepper, explores some of Debussy's early songs and provides an interesting element of contrast too. So we have Fleur des bles, Jane, Caprice, Rondel chinois, Les papillons, Rondeau, La fille au cheveux de Lin, Romance (Non, les baisers d'amour), L'archet, 'Flots, palmes, sables', Le matelot qui dombe a l'eau, Les elfes and Sequidille all of which date from the years 1880 to 1883, plus Beau Soir and Ariettes Oubliees which are later. It proves and enlightening and entrancing disc, as Keith and Lepper reveal sides to Debussy of which we might not have dreamed. And the contrast? Well Ariettes Oubliees were originally written in the later 1880's and the original songs still breathed a similar world to the earlier ones, but in 1903 Debussy revised them and re-published them as a group, Ariettes Oubliees allowing us to experience how the older Debussy re-worked his early songs.

Debussy was accepted for the Paris Conservatoire from the age of 10, he was clearly a prodigy but initially it was not clear whether he would be a pianist; in fact composing won out. From 1880 the 18 year old Debussy got a job as an accompanist in the studio of Madame Victorine Moreau-Sainti, and there encountered one of her students, Madame Marie Vasnier. It developed into a real education sentimentale as not only did Debussy dedicate 29 of his early songs to her (the Vasnier Songbook, 7 of which are on this disc), but they moved to a full blown love affair, despite Madame Vasnier being married. But he was a frequent guest at the Vasnier's home, enjoyed their intellectual friendship and run of their library and enjoyed family life with them. His time with the Vasnier's, including travel with them, remedied the cultural gaps and helped him learn more about literature and start exploring poetry. Many of the poets that he set in this period would be ones to which he returned.

Gillian Keith - Photographer: Sabine Mardo
Gillian Keith - Photographer: Sabine Mardo
Infatuated by Madame Vasnier, the songs dedicated to her exploit her high and flexible voice, and they are elaborate numbers including vocalises to show off her prowess. Here the young Debussy is treating the high lyric soprano voice in a way which is rather showy and far removed from the subtlety of his later songs where you can almost hear Melisande next door. Similarly some of the others are clearly influenced by parlour songs and existing song traditions. The resulting melange is a fascinating indicator of Debussy's influences and the way that evening at the age of 18 (and only just beginning serious composition lessons) he had a distinctive ear. These are more than just copies, and are seriously interesting songs in their own right.

Keith and Lepper start with Fleur des bles (Andre Girod) which is lyrically ardent, with rather a wandering melody line. Beau Soir (Paul Bourget) dates from later in the 1880s and has a lovely fragility, with Keith bringing a nicely seductive quality. Jane (Leconte de Lisle) owes something to parlour songs in its use of a refrain, but the melody is in fact anything but simple. Caprice (Theodore de Banville) has as its dedication (to Madame Vasnier), 'These songs conceived somehow in your memory can belong only to you, as does the author'. Rondel chinois (Alfred de Musset) comes as something of a shock, you don't really associate exotic coloratura vocalises with Debussy but that is what he has written, and the rest of the song is just as elaborate. Les papillons (Alfred de Musset) also has a wide vocal range, allied to a certain restlessness, whilst Rondeau (Alfred de Musset) is more relaxed in feel, but still challenging and sung here with great poise. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Leconte de Lisle) is rather ardent, but still quite elaborate vocally. Romance (Non, les baisers d'amour) has quite a busy vocal line which wanders somewhat, but given here in a vibrant performance. L'archet (Charles Cros) is quite a dramatic song, with a wide ranging melody line which is rather chromatic in its feel. Flots, palmes, sables (Armand Renaud) is so exotic that it reminded me of Rimsky-Korsakov's Queen of Shemakha from Le coq d'or.

Le matelot qui tome a l'eau (Maurice Bouchor) is a lovely little parlour-inspired gem; a beautifully flowing piano and charming vocals take a distinctively Debussian tang. Les elves (Leconte de Lisle) is, as you might expect, a coloratura tour-de-force with a showy piano part too but Debussy never falls into easy ballad-genre generics and whilst we might not associate the mature composer with this style, his younger self shows how it can be done. And Keith and Lepper are full of elfin charm and wit. Seguidilla (Theophile Gautier) is another showy song, this time Spanish (of course) and the result is a complete delight, trills, roulades and all.

Simon Lepper - Photo credit: Jacqui McSweeney
Simon Lepper
Photo credit Jacqui McSweeney
Clearly Madame Marie Vasnier had a distinctive and exotic voice which inspired Debussy, and if she performed these songs then she was also no mean singer. Debussy's affair with her lasted a total of 8 years, but also during this period he travelled as a pianist to Nadezhda von Meck (Tchaikovsky's patroness), and was in Rome as the winner of Prix de Rome in 1884. Whilst in Rome he wrote settings of Paul Verlaine, a poet whom Madame Vasnier had helped him discover and the first versions of these settings were clearly influenced by her voice. But in 1903, Debussy would re-visit the songs and refine them, removing the exotic specificity. The resulting Ariettes oubliees were dedicated to Mary Garden, his Melisande, though the songs are now more aimed at posterity than the particular voice of a muse.

Ariettes oubliess set poems by Paul Verlaine, a poet with whom we rather associate Debussy. C'est l'extase is a move to a new mood, languorous ecstasy and a wonderful subtlety replace the exotic and showy. Il pleure dans mon coeur continues this mood combining a relatively discreet, yet shapely, vocal line with a lovely rippling piano. L'ombre des arbres is darkly subtle in the piano, and the vocal line is flexible and recitative like. Here were are a lot closer to Melisande than we are to Madame Vasnier, though in fact the voice type needed is quite close, it is simply what Debussy does with it which has become more mysterious and fluid. Chevaux de bois  breaks the mood with lively piano part and a brilliantly fast patter-style song. And with this song, we are reaching the better known Debussy songs. The final two of the set Green and Spleen, are, in fact, anthologised extensively. Gillian Keith and Lepper are nicely relaxed and flexible in Green, allowing Debussy's fluid prosody to colour Verlaine's words (and yes the piano is still quite challenging, and played with poise by Lepper).  Spleen is quiet and intense, with a flexible attitude to time thus allowing the poetry to combine with the music.

Gillian Keith has a lovely lyric voice, which is coloured by quite a tight vibrato. Just occasionally she sounds a little pressured by the extremes of range in the songs. But overall she sings with great poise and brings a lovely sense of colour and sensitivity to them, going well beyond simple technical expertise and combining with Lepper to make something really expressive. Throughout, Lepper is a model accompanist and really shines in the songs which Debussy wrote to show off his own pianistic skills, in complement to Madame Vasnier's vocal ones (you do rather wonder what the complaisant Monsieur Vasnier made of it all!). The recital allows us to hear a selection of stupendous early Debussy songs, along with the mature composer's response to his earlier efforts.

Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper are launching the disc with a group of recitals at Wilton's Music Hall on 27 - 29 April 2015, further information from the Wilton's website.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Fleur de bles [2.02]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Beau soir [2.16]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Jane [2.58]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Caprice [1.54]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Rondel chinois [2.55]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Les papillons [1.44]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Rondeau [2.54]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - La fille aux cheveux de lin [3.59]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Romance (Non, les baisers d'amour) [1.37]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - L'archet [3.02]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Flots, palmes, sables [4.59]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Le matelot qui tombe a l'eau [1.14]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Les elfes [7.43]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Seguidille [4.22]
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) - Ariettes Oubliees [16.00]
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Simon Lepper (piano)
Cecilia Maria de Sultana (harp)
Recorded 1,2 October 2013, Potton Hall, Suffolk.
DEUX ELLES DXL1154 1CD [73.00]
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