DEBUSSY Harmonie du soir
Harmonia Mundi has decided to mark the centenary of Debussy’s death this year not by issuing a bumper box of everything he ever composed but simply by inviting artists on its roster to record works they wanted to a record. This attempt to ‘exalt the father of modern music’ has led to an eclectic mix of discs – I particularly enjoyed Alexander Melnikov’s second book of Préludes and the two-piano transcription of La mer (8/18). This new two-disc addition to the series, under the title ‘Harmonie du soir’, is the only one to feature vocal music.
The Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser and French baritone Stéphane Degout share a delicious recital, accompanied by Eugene Asti and Alain Planès respectively. There are songs inspired by two of Debussy’s lovers, Marie Vasnier and Emma Bardac, but this is also a programme which celebrates his love for the poetry of Paul Verlaine, Paul Borget, Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. Several sets of songs are included, each taken by one singer alone. So of the two sets of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, Karthäuser takes the earlier set (in its revised form), including a rapturous ‘En sourdine’, Degout taking the later set, composed in 1904 after he fell head over heels in love with Emma Bardac.
Karthäuser’s dewy soprano is light and fresh and she floats lines in ‘Le tombeau des naïades’ with ease. ‘Beau soir’ is almost sung on a half-breath. Degout is a singer of pure class. He has recorded six of these songs before (a recital on Naïve, 4/11), since when his high baritone has darkened. It’s now a touch more oaken (he said farewell to Pelléas recently and undertook his first Verdi role – Rodrigue – this year in Lyon) but it’s still an elegant, polished instrument. ‘Soupir’, the first of the Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, is gorgeously sung, bathed in autumnal melancholy.
The only significant set of songs missing (but surely not forgotten!) are the Ariettes oubliées, although Alain Planès plays the three Images oubliées in brief piano solos which act as occasional instrumental palate cleansers. Planès – whose terrific Harmonia Mundi set of Debussy’s complete works for solo piano, many on period instruments, is a treasure of my collection – plays exquisitely, both here and when partnering Degout. Asti is no less wonderful, a winning light touch to his guitar-strumming in ‘Mandoline’, while his phrasing in ‘La flûte de Pan’ is especially limpid. Two blissful hours from four winning advocates for Debussy.