Increasingly from the mid-1880s Debussy turned from the elegant Théodore de Banville and from purveyors of sentimentality like Girod and Bourget to poets whose attachments to the Symbolist movement gave him more scope for profundity. In 1882 he made his first two settings of Verlaine, who was to become the poet of some of his greatest songs. Mandoline
is the second of these two, and already at the age of twenty Debussy is seen to be responding to the quality of Verlaine’s writing. The ‘piano-as-mandolin’ was no new concept in French song, but Debussy introduces a new realism both in the opening call to attention, from which a myriad of possible continuations suggest themselves, and in the open fifths that do in fact follow. Now the opening vocal line does not recur until the final verse, allowing Debussy to make a pseudo-rhyme out of ‘chanteuses’ and ‘brises’, both set to a wonderfully floating, chromatic phrase. Purists may disapprove of the final ‘la-la’s, not in Verlaine’s original, but surely what Debussy makes of them disarms criticism? This is the earliest of his characteristic fade-out endings, culminating in a repeat of the opening call to attention, played correctly in this recording, though too rarely elsewhere, with the soft pedal; a wonderful touch, asking ‘Is that it?’. Here for the first time Debussy gave some intimation of what his piano parts would soon become.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2003