Duo Pianists Play Debussy

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DEBUSSY: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. En blanc et noir / Inge Spinette, Jan Michiels, pno / DEBUSSY, arr. CONSTANT: Impressions de Pelléas / Lore Binon, sop (Mélisande); Yves Saelens, ten (Pelléas); Pierre-Yves Pruvot, bar (Golaud); Tijl Favayts, bs (Arkel); Angélique Noldus, mezzo (Geneviève); Camille Bauer, mezzo (Yniold); Spinette & Michiels, pno / Fuga Libera FUG610

Here’s something new in the Debussy discography: duo-piano versions of En blanc et noir and his famous Prélude plus Marius Constant’s impressions of Pelléas et Mélisande. This was the main reason I chose to review this set, since I am not a fan of duo-piano versions of orchestral music, which are what bookend the Constant piece.

It’s not that Inge Spinette (what a great name for a pianist!) and Jan Michiels are poor pianists, only that the music sounds thin and vapid when played by duo pianos, and this is exacerbated by the fact that they use an awful lot of rallentando and rubato in their performance which I do not care for. Indeed, they seem to alternate between slowing the music down and then speeding up certain passages, and in the end all I could think was, “Why even bother?” I mean, really: were there people out there crying for someone to play Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun on two pianos? (And if there were, were they sane?)

I wish the Constant piece had used an orchestra, too; strings sustain long tones far better than pianos do; and most of the music is pure Debussy, compressed into a 90-minute structure. Our Mélisande, Lore Binon, has a pure, sweet soprano voice, but our Golaud, Pierre-Yves Pruvot, has a wobbly, unfocused baritone, which spoils every scene he is in. I did note, however, that Pruvot does interpret his lines dramatically, which is now the preferred way of singing Pelléas but not the way Debussy wanted it. Having come to maturity in the era in which French opera and chanson was sung “straight,” without any inflections at all, he commended his first Golaud, baritone Hector Dufranne, for sticking to his guns and refusing to “interpret” the role in the face of changing tastes. (You can hear Dufranne’s Golaud in recorded excerpts from the opera made in 1928, a decade after Debussy’s untimely death from cancer.) Angélique Noldus, our Geneviève, also interprets her lines somewhat, and thankfully she has a steady pure mezzo voice. Basso Tijl Favayts, as Arkel, has a rich voice that is only slightly infirm, but this is appropriate to the aged king. Our tenor, Yves Saelens, has an attractive timbre and just a hint of unsteadiness in loud passages, but is otherwise quite good. (When he couldn’t get a true baritone-matin for Pelléas, Debussy preferred a tenor to a deeper baritone voice.)

There is indeed some interest ion hearing how Constant compressed the opera; its structure becomes tighter, and with the singers actually interpreting most of the roles, it gains in dramatic power, but the lack of an orchestra then reduces the impact of the overall work to a sort of salon piece. An interesting excursion, then, worth hearing at least once, but neither a substitute for nor a complement to a good full recording of the work.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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