BIZET Symphony; DEBUSSY Fantaisie (Villaume)
Opinions differ about Debussy’s Fantaisie, his only work for piano and orchestra, completed in 1890. Self-critical as always, Debussy himself was seemingly in two minds about it: after stating that he thought the finale weak, he nevertheless withdrew the score ahead of its premiere, when Vincent d’Indy, scheduled to conduct, insisted on giving the first movement on its own. It remained unperformed until 1919.
Despite the title, the work is essentially a piano concerto in Franckian cyclic form, and in a booklet note for his new recording with Andrew von Oeyen, Emmanuel Villaume argues that more pianists would be drawn to it if Debussy had simply designated it as such. The bravura solo writing, however, remains controversial. Stephen Walsh, in his recent study of the composer, describes it as ‘showy’ in ways that are essentially foreign to much of his output, a criticism that is difficult to dismiss despite the attractiveness of the thematic material and the work’s striking harmonic language.
Von Oeyen’s style, weighty yet elegant, suits it wonderfully well, though. There’s reflection as well as bravado in the opening movement, while the central Lento really is molto espressivo, becoming darker and increasingly introspective as it progresses. Villaume’s conducting similarly blends refinement with élan, and his Prague orchestra are on fine form, the strings beautifully sensuous, the woodwind gracefully poised. Von Oeyen’s treatment of the finale, meanwhile, dispatched with breezy wit over pizzicato basses sounding positively jazzy, makes you question Debussy’s judgement about its inferiority to the rest of the score.
It’s an impressive achievement, as is the performance of Ma Mère l’Oye that accompanies it. Villaume takes the work faster than some, and gives us a very adult interpretation that looks back nostalgically at childhood even as it recreates its wonder and unease. It’s exquisitely played and the emotional ambiguities are all immaculately judged: Petit Poucet, lost in his forest, sounds very sad, and Beauty responds to her Beast with a mixture of disquiet and genuine fascination.
So it’s a shame that the third work here, Bizet’s Symphony in C, doesn’t quite achieve the same level of finesse. Bizet took Gounod’s Symphony in D as his model, though Villaume steers the score closer to Beethoven or Schubert, and the end result is at times heavy-footed and oddly charmless. Recommended for the Debussy and the Ravel, but you need, perhaps, to look elsewhere if Bizet is your main focus of interest.