DEBUSSY La Boîte à joujoux. Khamma. Jeux
>‘The characters of this ballet are like moths in the night, like children who do not know the rules of the game they are playing.’ This is Diaghilev’s description of Jeux, ahead of its premiere in 1913, when the audience notoriously found both Debussy’s music and Nijinsky’s choreography abstruse. The only one of Debussy’s ballets to reach the stage in his lifetime, Jeux is now regarded as one of his greatest achievements, though why he produced this extraordinary score when he considered the subject ‘idiotic and unmusical’ remains to some extent a mystery. His attitude towards ballet, however, was ambiguous: Lan Shui and his Singapore Symphony explore the contradictions by placing Jeux alongside his lesser-known works for dance.
The conflict between artistic integrity and financial pressure lurks, one suspects, behind Debussy’s ambivalence. Having initially turned Jeux down, he caved in when Diaghilev doubled his fee. Khamma, unheard until 1924, also started life as a money-spinner, when it was commissioned, in 1911, by the Canadian dancer Maud Allan, to a scenario set in ancient Egypt, which pre-empts The Rite of Spring in its depiction of a girl sacrificially dancing herself to death so that the gods will avert an impending military invasion. Debussy entrusted Koechlin with the orchestration but angrily withdrew the score when Allan demanded changes. When the illustrator André Hellé proposed the idea of a ballet for children, La boîte à joujoux, in 1913, however, Debussy accepted with both alacrity and pleasure, rapidly producing the now familiar piano version the same year. Unfinished at his death, the orchestral score was completed by André Caplet and first performed in 1919.
Shui proves a first-rate interpreter of all three works. Jeux is startlingly dramatic, the ebb and flow of the music beautifully judged, the mood unsettlingly erotic and menacing, the orchestral sound darkly sensual. I prefer the greater transparency of Haitink’s Concertgebouw here but the Singapore orchestra’s playing is persuasively vivid and precise. Erotic menace is also integral to Khamma, where the orchestral sound is even darker, and baleful piano ostinatos drive the drama forwards. This is another superb performance, though Shui can’t disguise the inspirational dips in the lengthy sacrificial dance. La boîte à joujoux is done with infinite charm and wit: there are some beautifully poised instrumental solos in the set piece toy-box divertissements. It’s all essential listening if you’re interested in the relationship between music and dance.