Lan Shui’s Objective Debussy

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DEBUSSY: Jeux. Khamma, légende dansée (orch. Koechlin). La Bôite à joujoux, Ballet pour enfants (orch. Caplets) / Singapore Symphony Orchestra; Lan Shui, conductor / Bis 2162

It took decades for Debussy’s ballet score for Jeux to become familiar, let alone popular, with concert audiences, in part because two weeks after its premiere the Ballets Russe put on the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, thus completely eclipsing Debussy’s fine work. I’ve always liked it, particularly in the warm and effusive recording by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra from way back in the 1970s.

This performance is considerably different in feel. Lan Shui, a conductor of the modern school, gives us objectivist Debussy. Gone is Haitink’s warmth; in its place is a cool, clean, lean excursion of the score, the Singapore Symphony exuding an almost metallic string and wind sound. Of course, some of this may well be the acoustic in which it was recorded; I noted the same qualities in Andrew Litton’s Prokofiev, and by and large the label prides itself on crystal clarity of texture, which sometimes precludes warmth. But Shui’s performance, though lean in texture, is not unemotional. On the contrary, Shui pours a great deal of emotion into this performance, making it at least a complement to the Haitink reading. And, to be honest, I find that this approach works well in Jeux because it is Debussy’s most advanced orchestration, even less “Romantic” in feel than La Mer or the Images pour orchestre. Here, the opaque sound that Debussy helped create and put a patent on is morphed to fit the contours of this new work, in which “themes” come and go in rapid succession, often leaving the slow listener behind. Moreover, the generally rapid tempi of the piece tends towards a more objective quality anyway; the ballet was designed to present games, not a lovers’ tryst. As the performance went on, I became more and more engrossed in what Shui was doing with it, and by the end I really found myself enjoying it.

I confess that Khamma, a ballet that Debussy cobbled together quickly for money that he desperately needed, was entirely new to me. Apparently the composer’s heart wasn’t in it; he wrote it for Maud Allan, one of Isidore Duncan’s rivals, and was so busy trying to figure out how to write his Edgar Allan Poe comic opera The Devil in the Belfry that he didn’t even orchestrate it himself, but turned it over to his friend and compatriot Charles Koechlin. In this case I was able to compare the performance to that by Jun Markl and the Lyon National Orchestra, and here I was struck, even more so than by Jeux, with the remarkable differences in Shui’s phrasing. His streamlined reading leaves little room for the imaginative touches that Debussy put into the score to make their impression; rather, these magical moments are subjugated to a forward momentum that makes little distinction between the piano here and the forte there. In the end, this tended to bother me a bit; following Debussy’s dynamics markings strictly is crucial to a proper reading of his scores. Without them, the music tends to sound pallid, and unfortunately this was the case with Shui’s Khamma. So far, then, one thumb up and one thumb down.

The deciding factor for me was La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box), a ballet written by Debussy with great pleasure for his little daughter Emma. Although this, too, had to wait to be orchestrated by another hand (André Caplet), Debussy loved writing this and evidently had a great deal of fun playing around with the different themes. Markl, by no means an overly Romantic conductor, brings out all sorts of colors in the orchestration whereas Shui remains staunchly objective. Thinking about it, it seemed to me that Shui approached the music determined not to become personally involved in it. Now, one can make the argument that Shui’s approach is the more appropriate since these are, after all, only toys that Debussy is depicting in music, but to Emma these toys were like real people, little friends, and he knew that, too. I don’t want to have the reader assume that Shui’s approach is entirely wrong, only that if one compares it to Markl one finds it missing a certain warmth. By way of compensation, however, Shui is more faithful to the score; Markl indulges in a certain amount of tempo-distention which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Shui’s approach resembles the French objectivism of Jean Martinon with the Orchestre de l’ORTF. Martinon was savaged by music critic Claudia Cassidy when he was music director of the Chicago Symphony, but had a distinguished career in Europe in a wide variety of music. His recordings of Khamma and Le Boîte à joujoux combine elements of both Markl and Shui. He is more faithful to Debussy’s tempo directions but brings out more dynamics contrasts than Shui. I find his performances of the latter two ballets also a bit cool in sound—they were made for EMI at a time (the early 1970s) when that label was starting to emulate the “tunnel sound” of rival Decca-London—but Martinon was a fine enough conductor to bring out the better qualities of both scores with felicity.

Still, when push comes to shove, my emotions go with Markl rather than Shui or Martinon. The music just “feels” better to me with Markl direction despite the slight fudging he does to the scores. Yet to many of those who prefer a more “accurate” reading in state-of-the-art sound, Shui’s performances will indeed satisfy.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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