Poétiques de l’Instant: works by Debussy and Balmer review – thoughtful and rewarding | Classical music


Chamber works from the beginning and end of Debussy’s career – his only string quartet, composed in 1893, and the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, from 1915 – provide the points of reference in this collection from the Quatuor Voce, with the soprano Jodie Devos, flautist Juliette Hurel and harpist Emmanuel Ceysson. Juxtaposed as they are here, those two scores underline just how far Debussy travelled stylistically in less than a quarter of a century.

Though the composition of his quartet coincided with work on the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, the score that first announced him as a modernist, it is a far more conservative, almost backward-looking piece. Alongside the late sonata’s wistful musical shapes, its ever-changing play of sonorities and almost wilful changes of mood and direction, all shaped beautifully and elegantly in this performance, the quartet’s reliance on traditional forms and the use of the cyclical thematic methods of César Franck seem to place it in a very different expressive world altogether, despite the tremendous urgency and authority that the Voce’s performance gives it.

Poétiques de l’Instant album cover art
Poétiques de l’Instant album cover art

Devos’s contribution is a performance of the four settings of Debussy’s own texts that make up the Proses Lyriques of 1892, with the original piano part arranged for quartet by Yves Balmer, so that the string lines twine seductively around her velvety phrases. Balmer also adds his own Fragments Soulevés par le Vent (Fragments Lifted by the Wind), three short movements of fragile, evanescent textures, which were commissioned by the Quatuor Voce to be an “echo” of Debussy’s quartet. It may not all add up to an essential Debussy collection but it’s a thoughtful and rewarding one nevertheless.

This week’s other pick

The second Debussy disc from Alpha this month also juxtaposes works from different phases of the composer’s career. Mikko Franck conducts Radio France forces in the 1888 cantata La Damoiselle Élue, the composer’s first orchestral work to be performed publicly, alongside the three Nocturnes of 1899, and the four symphonic fragments that were extracted in 1912 from the incidental music to Gabriel d’Annunzio’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.

Franck proves to be a warmly expressive Debussy interpreter, emphasising the romantic background to Damoiselle Élue, and giving a warm glow to the Nocturnes; but he also finds just the right sense of hieratic detachment for the Saint Sébastien pieces, providing a reminder that there is nothing else quite like them in Debussy’s output.


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