How to play Debussy
The clouds will be rolling by about a quarter to 11 this morning. Not just in the sky, which is forecast to be partly cloudy. But also on WFCR, when we play Nuages ("Clouds"), the first of Claude Debussy's "Nocturnes." And not just in any performance, but from a new set featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. This is how to play Debussy.
Great Debussy from Glasgow? You bet, and thanks to 42-year old Denève, music director of the RSNO since 2005. He's been in love with the music of thre great French composer's music since the mid-'80s, when a friend, in his words, "infected me with the disease of Debussy-itis of which, to my infinite joy, I have never been cured!" Early studies at a conducting camp led by the late Pierre Dervaux led to the inspirational discovery of the great Debussy recordings made in the late-'50s and early-'60s by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its Alsatian music director Charles Munch. Since then, Denève mission has been to seek the "elusive core of Debussy’s language, so refined and detailed in form and structure," and to make plain for listeners the "narrative, pictorial, and – most of all – sensual aspirations of his music." But not for Denève the hazy, blurry textures of Debussy's orchestrations, a kind of sonic analog to the late canvasses of Monet. Rather, he conducts with the belief "that in Debussy’s music everything must be heard, everything is part of the language, and that one must emphasise transparency, freshness of timbre (the woodwind are often predominant), energy, and rhythmic precision." "I believe," he concludes, "in a Debussy whose music is theatrical, sensual, visual, singing, forward moving, in which all the lines are heard, in which nothing is drowned, except in the evocative and pregnant pianissimi…But more than anything, I passionately love Debussy’s music!"
What does Denève's devotion sound like in practice? "Sound" is indeed the operative verb, since as my late friend Arthur (one-time secretary to the aforementioned Charles Munch) constantly reminded me, sonorité is the most crucial and most elusive quality of great French musical interpretations. Listen to the floating sonorities of the clarinets and bassoons right at the start of Nuages, joined after two measures by an oboe, and answered by the plaintive English horn. There's not a hint of tension in the music's flow, allowing us to savor every quarter note as if it were the next in a tasting flight of wines. Muted strings, subdued horns — each instrumental color sparkles with perfect clarity rather than blending in sonic mush. The music surges, subsides, but does not build, as it depicts, in Debussy's words, "the slow, melancholy procession of the clouds, ending in a grey agony tinged with white." You'll hear the qualities of clarity, sonority and repose on an even broader and more colorful canvas in the last of the Nocturnes, Sirènes ("Sirens"), with the wordless women's chorus enriching the sound-palette. In between comes an edge-of-the-seat, turn-on-a-franc version of Fêtes ("Festivals"), never rushed, never heavy. Even in its thickly scored central section, the accompaniment of the violins, reprising the woodwind melody of the work's opening, is clear as a bell. This doesn't just happen. It takes vision, study, great ears, and lots of hard work. Bravi!