Hyperion Records

Trois Mélodies, L85
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The year 1891 saw Debussy still living an unsettled life, eking out an existence by giving piano lessons and ‘borrowing’ from more affluent friends. But, with the Cinq poèmes behind him, his music begins to deepen while becoming more straightforward. Of the Trois mélodies on poems by Verlaine, Debussy’s friend, the writer Pierre Louÿs, said that they were ‘verlainiennes jusqu’au bout des croches’ (Verlainian down to the last quaver). They do indeed share the poet’s qualities of musicality, spirituality, melancholy and simplicity. Even if ‘La mer est plus belle’ depicts the ocean with impetuously swirling semiquavers, the disposition of voice and piano may seem to show something of a return to the old romance model. But this is more apparent to the eye than to the ear. The song is a salutary blast against those who would write Debussy off as a lax invertebrate and reminds us that, when he and some friends were caught out in a small boat in a fierce storm off the Brittany coast, it was Debussy who insisted on going on—“One feels totally alive”. Lovers of Pelléas may spot the premonition of Mélisande’s motif in the right hand of the piano at the words ‘Oh! si patiente, Même quand méchante!’. Make of that what you will …

With Le son du cor Debussy conjures up a dreamworld entirely his own. The piano now takes up the reins of melody, while the voice chants, often on repeated notes. The horn is no longer the heroic instrument of Siegfried, but the bearer of ‘an almost orphan sorrow’. Without a score it is almost impossible to detect the beat in the first four bars; then the voice’s deliberately steady quavers on the first line speak of a struggle between man and nature, between the individual and the mass, to turn chaos into order. By comparison with La mer est plus belle, everything is understated, yet every syllable tells. In L’échelonnement des haies Debussy makes a bow in the direction of an even older form than the romance, the chanson. After the ‘soir monotone’ of Le son du cor, this is a bright, lazy Sunday afternoon enlivened by frisking colts and lambs. No one could compete with Debussy in his ability to engender light around his notes. We might almost say that the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. Predictably, the combination of bells and flutes in the same line brings out the best in him. Like Mozart, he would have been able to say, ‘Not one note more than is necessary’.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2003

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