ROUSSEL Bacchus et Ariane DEBUSSY 6 Epigraphes antiques
Kazuki Yamada’s new album forms a tacit tribute to the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande’s founder Ernest Ansermet, since the latter’s orchestration of Debussy’s Six Epigraphes antiques forms its centrepiece and to some extent its raison d’être. A work with a curious history, it started out as a setting for reciter and chamber ensemble of Pierre Louÿs’s Chansons de Bilitis (not to be confused with the songs based on the same text), before being revised, minus the poetry, for piano duet in 1914. Debussy’s subsequent plans to orchestrate it himself came to nothing.
Some have seemingly questioned just how successfully Ansermet’s version, completed in 1939, mirrors Debussy’s own style and the booklet-notes argue that the instrumentation more closely approximates that of Ravel. It’s a work of sparse musical gestures, sensuous yet austere, rooted in a sequence of woodwind solos – flute, oboe, bassoon – surrounded and supported by string figurations and the sparest touches of orchestral colour. You can’t help but feel that Debussy (and Ravel, for that matter) would have been less unvarying. It’s nicely done though, with the OSR woodwind and strings playing with poise and Yamada controlling the narrow dynamic range with great skill.
The ballet suites that accompany it are more variable. Yamada’s way with Roussel is high-voltage if occasionally raw around the edges, which means that the First Suite from Bacchus et Ariane, with its motoric rhythms and relentless momentum, generates considerable excitement, and the Bacchanale that closes the Second becomes a real roller-coaster ride, with the OSR brass on thrilling form. Les biches, however, is oddly solid. The string sound – lean in Bacchus et Ariane – is rightly warmer here, and the Baroque inflections nicely to the fore. But it lacks wit, the Rag-Mazurka sags in the middle and the Andantino is metronomic and unyielding. It’s beautifully played, but not as good as the versions by Prêtre, Désormière or Frémaux.