DEBUSSY Jeux. Nocturnes (Roth)
Released as part of Harmonia Mundi’s Debussy centenary series, this superb disc from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles also to some extent continues Roth’s exploration of music associated with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Nijinsky’s notorious L’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prélude’ is omitted from the ballet’s title) was first seen in May 1912. Debussy privately admitted he found the choreography ‘grotesque’, but refrained from public comment as negotiations with Diaghilev for Jeux were already under way. He apparently considered the ambivalent ménage à trois scenario for the latter ‘idiotic and unmusical’, and only agreed to begin composition when Diaghilev doubled his fee. Once again he objected to Nijinsky’s choreography, deeming it ‘hideous’, though the score, composed at breakneck speed in the summer of 1912, ranks among his greatest.
Both works are essentially about desire, and their sensuality is heightened here not only by their juxtaposition but by the dark warmth of Les Siècles’ period-instrument sound and the restrained intensity of Roth’s interpretations. Played by Marion Ralincourt on a 1900 Lot flute, the opening of Faune sounds very sultry, even husky, and the performance becomes really suggestive later on as the flutes sigh and moan over the principal string melody, before dying languidly away. So much has been written about the complex modernity of Jeux, meanwhile, that we tend to forget how closely Debussy adhered to Diaghilev’s request that the score should be in essence a scherzo-cum-waltz. Roth conducts it with an appealing lilt, immaculately judging its ebb and flow while remaining all the while alert to its constant changes in tempo. The sudden jolts out of triple time, suggesting the girls’ jealous rivalry for the boy, are barbed and witty, and there’s a real surge of passion at the climactic three-way embrace, marked ‘violent’ in the score.
It’s a wonderfully persuasive performance, as is Roth’s account of Nocturnes that follows it. ‘Nuages’, with its mournful cor anglais and drifting textures, sounds very disconsolate here. ‘Fêtes’, all garish brilliance and light, is played with terrific agility. ‘Sirènes’, meanwhile, is exceptionally beautiful, even serene, in its warmth and depth, and the women’s voices from Les Cris de Paris are exquisitely integrated into the textures rather than seeming detached, as is sometimes the case. The recording, made in the Philharmonie de Paris in January, is finely engineered, though the close miking of Ralincourt in Faune captures some in-breaths and occasional key clatter.
The disc comes with a tremendous bonus DVD, co-produced by France Télévisions and Radio Nacional de España, of Roth and Les Siècles in concert during this year’s International Festival of Music and Dance in Grenada. The programme is much the same, though Faune has been replaced by the Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire. The Grenada Jeux is more relaxed than its Parisian counterpart, and the playing is, if anything, even more subtly refined. Nocturnes, in contrast, has greater urgency, particularly in ‘Sirènes’, which is altogether darker and more turbulent in mood on DVD than on disc. It’s a wonderful issue and another outstanding addition to Harmonia Mundi’s excellent series.