I thought I’d start this month’s two listening journeys with the same work, probably the most masterly evocation of the sea in music, Debussy’s La mer. There are dozens of outstanding recordings to choose from, but I’ve opted for a recording made back in 1964 by DG – Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It remains a magnificent example of Karajan’s mastery of colour, timbre and pulse, and the playing is breathtaking. The Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was bowled over by Debussy’s music and you don’t have to listen long to his Green (November Steps II) of 1967 to discern the powerful inspiration that forged this gloriously colourful work (think Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune transported to 1960s Japan). For the young Olivier Messiaen, an early encounter with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was like a ‘thunderbolt’ and though Messiaen’s harmonic language hardly imitated Debussy’s the two composers come closest in their respective piano Préludes. Though more abstract – but only just! – in title, Messiaen explores with a pianistic language of wonderful luminosity a host of spiritual preoccupations at the heart of his evidently firmly held faith. Try Roger Muraro’s superb recordings.
Born two years before Debussy’s death, Henri Dutilleux continued a tradition that placed him as an obvious successor of Debussy, Ravel, Roussel and others though with a distinctly modern voice (and one which earned him considerable opprobrium from Pierre Boulez). His violin concerto L’arbre des songes, premiered in 1985 and now a modern repertoire work, though structurally quite different to anything Debussy might have embraced, certainly belongs sonically to a similar aesthetic. A pupil of Messiaen but also a great admirer of the music of Debussy, the English composer George Benjamin’s music sounds closer to his teacher’s, but a work like the 2016 Gramophone Contemporary Award winner, Palimpsests (2002) has a Debussyan control of texture and atmosphere that surely connects him to the tradition. And following Stephen Hough’s suggestion (in this month’s cover feature – page 15) of the jazz pianist and composer, Bill Evans, how about a piece like Peace Piece – once heard, the link is surely evident ... we’re not a million miles away from the Préludes.