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Consistently Refined

Debussy
transcriptions -
reviewed by
HOWARD SMITH

'... these alternatives are never less than striking ...'

Debussy Transcriptions for piano duet and piano four hands. © 2009 Warner Classics and Jazz

In its totality Erato's double album consists of, first, a complete Debussy CD, orchestral music arranged for piano duet by Ravel and transcriber, conductor, composer André Caplet (1878-1925).

The 2nd disc has six Schumann studies (Op 6), Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso (IRCC) for piano duet; plus Tchaikovsky's 3 Dances from Swan Lake and Wagner's overture, The Flying Dutchman -- both for piano four hands. The remaining (CD 2) Debussy piano duet is Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

Listen -- Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
(CD2 track 1, 0:58-1:50) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

Complicated, huh? Yes indeed.

The performers are: Georges Pludermacher (born 1944), winner of the Concours Géza Anda (1979), noted for adventurous and widely ranging repertoire -- emphasizing contemporary music and innovative approaches to traditional literature, and Jean-François Heisser (born 1950), professor at the Académie Internationale d'Eté de Nice, who was much influenced by Ravel specialist, Vlado Perlemuter (1904-2002). Heisser's recordings include works of Beethoven, Brahms, de Falla, Saint-Saëns, Mompou, Turina, Martinu, Bartók and Albeniz. He often appears in concert with fellow pianist, Marie-Josephe Jude.

Simon Trezise (author of The Cambridge Companion to Debussy), notes that 'for much of La Mer, the composer spurns more obvious devices associated with the sea, wind, and "attendant" storm in favor of his own, highly individual vocabulary'. In particular he avoids the arpeggiated triads used by Wagner and Schubert to evoke the movement of water.

Though (skilled transcriber) Caplet became a close friend and occasional co-worker with Debussy he was unable to transcend the intrinsic limitations of reducing orchestrations to lesser forms and forces.

Heisser and Pludermacher demonstrate wonderful symbiotic accord with their wide ranging tonal observances and sparkling technical discourse.

Nonetheless sixteen fingers and four thumbs are, in the final analysis, insufficient to fully convey Debussy's rhythmic coloration in La Mer (trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre) begun -- 1903 -- in France and completed in 1905 at Eastbourne by the English Channel.

For its full incomparable effect one can do no better than turn to Charles Munch (1891-1968) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Hall, Boston -- 1956) on RCA's Living Stereo.

The Nocturnes (premièred in 1901): 'Nuages' and 'Fêtes' (minus 'Sirènes', the 3rd nocturne, with its female chorus) were, in contrast, transcribed by Ravel. Even amidst the bustle of 'Fêtes' his adaptations reveal an inspired degree of economy and fidelity to the original; a joy to hear.

Listen -- Fêtes (Nocturnes)
(CD1 track 5, 3:04-3:55) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

Debussy originally intended the orchestral Images (1905-1912) as a work for two pianos. However, by March 1906, writing to his publisher Jacques Durand, the composer said he would cast the work for orchestra. It was first performed with Debussy conducting Concerts Colonne in January 1913.

At 33'.26" this three-part work with its opening 'Gigues' making extensive use of a Scottish folk song (The Keel Row) permits the keyboard duettists no let-up throughout.

On CD 2 Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (for piano duet) completes the transcribed Debussy works.

Next up are 'Six ( canonic studies) for organ or pedal piano', Op 56 (1845). Schumann composed several pieces specifically for the pedal piano; others are his Four Sketches Op 58 and Six Fugues on Bach Op 60.

The Opus 56, Bach-like miniatures with a Romantic veneer, emerge splendidly in Debussy's adaptations for piano four hands.

Listen -- Schumnann: Nicht zu schnell (Op 56)
(CD2 track 6, 0:00-0:43) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

One wonders if violinist Pachulsky didn't awaken Debussy's interest in IRCC for between 20 July and 5 November 1880 the composer was engaged as accompanist by Nadezhda von Meck while she stayed at Interlaken (Switzerland), Arcachon (Villa Marguerite), Paris, Nice, Genoa, Naples and Florence (Villa Oppenheim).

In September, he composed his Trio No 1 in G major, played at Villa Oppenheim when the family were joined by Pachulsky and cellist Danilchenko, who had just finished studying at the Moscow Conservatory. The trio was required to perform every evening.

Few violinists miss Saint-Saëns' characteristic showpieces from their discography. Consider ex US Army GI and Glenn Dicterow/Dorothy Delay protégé, Janice Martin (début 1998).

She already has two IRCC recordings under her belt: one with pianist Rachel Franklin (on a borrowed 1685 Marquise d'Auria Strad); the other with Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Jiri Malat.

Then there's Heifetz's IRCC with the RCA Victor Orchestra and William Steinberg. It stands in a class by itself in its refined elegance and crackling supercharged frisson.

The ever resourceful label Naxos even has an Introduction et rondo capriccioso in a flute, clarinet and wind orchestra arrangement while Quebec Symphony percussionist Anne-Julie Caron plays IRCC as a marimba arrangement with Thirteen Strings and guest conductor Thomas Annand.

Listen -- Saint-Saëns: IRCC (Op 56)
(CD2 track 8, 7:20-8:35) © 2008 Warner Classics and Jazz

Heisser and Pludermacher bring almost papable enjoyment to their dazzling, crystalline, keyboard performance of this evergreen violin favourite. But both they and Debussy (as transcriber) have been unable to inject much merit into Saint-SaŽns' threadbare 'Caprice on Airs from Gluck's Alceste'.

Note that the complete solo piano works of Saint-Saëns are available on a 2CD Vox (1974) set with pianist Marylène Dosse.

For four hands or full orchestra, Tchaikovsky's genius is clear in the sheer enchantment of three dances from Swan Lake, Op 20.

The ballet's adaptations take many forms. Australian choreographer Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake, first performed in 2002, was loosely based on the breakdown of the marriage of Princess Diana to Prince Charles and his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.

Finally the best-known transcriptions of Wagner are those by Liszt for solo piano; among the finest are 'Solemn March to the Holy Grail' from Parsifal and the Overture to Tannhauser. The latter is most monumentally performed by Benno Moiseiwitsch (Arbiter, 1999) -- also available with an abbreviated Wagner/Liszt Liebestod (Naxos 2001); a Ward Marston transfer.

Here in the hands of the French duettists the Debussy transcription is resoundingly applauded by a live audience; a reception that speaks for itself.

All these works work best in their original guise. Yet these alternatives are never less than striking, entertaining, appropriately nuanced, and consistently refined.

Copyright © 2 May 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand

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CD INFORMATION: DEBUSSY TRANSCRIPTIONS

CLAUDE DEBUSSY

MAURICE RAVEL

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY

RICHARD WAGNER

ROBERT SCHUMANN

LA MER

IMAGES

CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS

PIANO DUET

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