Jun Märkl Completes His Debussy Orchestral Cycle
February 16, 2012
February marks the worldwide release of German conductor Jun Märkl’s recently completed Debussy orchestral cycle for Naxos. This collection contains all Debussy’s works for orchestra as well as many orchestral arrangements of his piano music. Together these display a rich panorama of Debussian sound and a remarkable insight into the composer. Established arrangements by Debussy’s contemporaries, including Ravel and Caplet, are complemented by more recent arrangements from composers such as Colin Matthews and Robin Holloway. Märkl believes that Debussy ‘set up a model of orchestration for the rest of the twentieth century’ and it is with this conviction that he draws from the Orchestre National de Lyon such ‘world-class playing’ (American Record Guide).
Your collaboration with the Orchestre National de Lyon on the complete Debussy cycle has won plaudits for all concerned around the world. Was it for you the fulfilment of a lifelong love? ‘Yes. You could say that. I started really quite early with Children’s Corner, and then I played a lot of the Debussy Préludes, both volumes, so I was very busy discovering Debussy, but then it changed a lot when I went from the piano to the orchestral repertoire. And I was just amazed at the richness of his colours, and that was for me the ideal of Impressionist music. When I went to Lyon, to work with this orchestra, Debussy was absolutely at the top of my priorities, and I was very glad that I could mount a big project, over six years, exploring him from all different sides, different angles; to watch him, to see where he came from, what came after him. And I now believe firmly that he is the most important French composer of the twentieth century.’
The most important, and one of the most misunderstood, the most commonly misrepresented? ‘Yes, I believe that too. Usually people are much more drawn to Ravel, many of whose works are showpieces for the orchestra. Debussy seems, on the whole, more uncomfortable. His structures are more complicated. And it was he who changed the language of French music completely. He was the one who overturned Wagnerism in France, indeed Germanic influences generally; who redefined the French musical aesthetic, both through his composition and his writings about it. Without Debussy, Messiaen and Boulez and those who came afterwards would not have been possible. The extent and power of his influence is still underrated, I think, in the minds of most music-lovers. His example was ground-breaking, and it shook up the musical world. I think one common misconception is that Debussy is primarily an Impressionist composer—that colour and atmosphere, and a certain vagueness, a certain fogginess, are more important than structure in his music. My impression is that the exact opposite is true. He was very keen to make the rhythmical structure of his music clear. The rhythmical structure of Debussy’s music is much greater than we tend to think. He was very much a sonic architect. And a very demanding one too. I would like the listener’s attention to be focused on the clarity of the structure, the clarity of the sound, so that they really can hear everything that’s happening, all the inner voices etc. Debussy is extremely clear about what he wants—almost every note has some indication of how to play it, and the colour it should have. The performance of his music must reflect this. It must be extremely precise.’
Few would dispute that Debussy wrote great music for orchestra. But was he a great orchestral writer? If so, what were some of his greatest contributions to the art of orchestration? ‘In the beginning, though he had some very good ideas, he was not yet really a master of instrumentation. But he learned a lot, especially from the Russian composers, and from Wagner too, and he developed into a virtuoso orchestrator, whose example influenced Ravel. He redefined the whole French approach to writing for the woodwinds, for instance. The woodwind often dominate the structure, with the strings providing a very sophisticated, finespun aural net, if I can put it that way. The trumpets and horns are generally very melodic, the equal of the woodwind, and the writing is often much more like what we imagine from the winds than from the brass. He set up a model of orchestration for the rest of the twentieth century.’
Wagner’s influence was pervasive. Not even Debussy could resist him in his youth, though he later scorned him. How much is this early interest detectable in his orchestral works? ‘Oh quite a bit, I think, in his early works, and even up to Pelléas et Mélisande, where in one orchestral interlude you can hear the bells of Parsifal—which he was clearly re-introducing there on purpose. He had a very deep knowledge of this repertoire—especially Parsifal and Tristan. But after that he found Wagner’s influence so overwhelming that he had to pull back, and find something new. So Pelléas was really the turning point. After that he changed.’
Listeners expecting only Debussy in this set are in for a refreshing, indeed an illuminating, surprise. ‘We’re trying here—and working on a large scale—to give a lot of insight into Debussy the musician as a whole, trying also to give insight into a lot of the piano works. If you confine yourself just to those works orchestrated by Debussy himself, that might be accommodated by a few CDs. But for us it was very important to include, as well, orchestrations by people who were very close to him, like Ravel, like Caplet, for example, students and friends who knew him too, and later even contemporary composers, composers of our own time, who’ve orchestrated of some of the piano works. And this demonstrates how even today, Debussy’s works are so important that today’s composers are still exploring and learning from them. So in this cycle that we’ve done you really get a big picture of Debussy (every note we present is by Debussy): a portrait of the composer and his significance that stretches over a whole century.’
Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.
Jun Märkl Biography & Discography
Claude Debussy Biography & Discography
Also available as single-CD releases