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Kara Dahl Russell
The WSCL Blog, March 2011

Debussy wrote music for the controversial work of Gabrielle D’Annunzio, “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.” Controversial because it combined the biblical figure of Saint Sebastian with the greek myth of Adonis, hightening the homo-erotic interest of the story, then he had his current mistress play the Saint herself. D’Annunzio’s work was known for illustrating “the voluptuous life” of the late 1800s and turn of the century, and this production was not only forbidden to all Catholics by the Pope, but it was the last straw that led to the Pope putting all of D’Annunzio’s writing on the Index of Forbidden Books. Debussy’s music is fittingly dark and experimental in this work, less melody driven. Also on this CD are several other works written for dance and other stage works—the delicious variety of Debussy. © 2011 The WSCL Blog

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, March 2011

Excellent and in many ways revelatory record. Fine notes.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, March 2011

And the ball bounces back to me. In Fanfare 32:2, I reviewed Volume 1 in this series, the kickoff to a survey of Debussy’s complete works for orchestra. That some of the items were not originally written for orchestra didn’t disqualify them from inclusion; in addition to the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer, and Jeux, that first volume also included an orchestrated version of Children’s Corner by André Caplet.

Volume 2, containing the Nocturnes along with other orchestral arrangements, went to James Miller in 32:6. And Volume 3, containing Images and more orchestral arrangements, went to Boyd Pomeroy in 34:1 Now, once again there comes a knocking at my door, and it’s Volume 4. You’d think Märkl’s cycle was the waif no one wanted, but the truth is Miller, Pomeroy, and I have all had positive things to say. The one thing I said in my review of Volume 1 that bears repeating is that Debussy didn’t really write that much original music for orchestra, so filling up this many discs requires considerable padding with works arranged for orchestra after the fact, a number of them by composers other than Debussy, and in at least one case—a good part of Khamma—with music not by Debussy at all.

Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, which Debussy did write for orchestra—indeed for orchestra and chorus with solo vocal parts for soprano and two altos—is presented on the current disc as the Symphonic Fragments in which the aforementioned Caplet had a hand. The original work, as conceived by Debussy, was a five-act musical mystery play custom-designed for the famous dancer and stage actress Ida Rubinstein. The first performance in 1911 scandalized the French, who are genetically predisposed, it seems, to take to the streets in protest; consider what happened two years later at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

In the case of Debussy’s dead-on-arrival opus, the Archbishop of Paris issued a fatwa (or whatever it’s called by the Roman Catholic Church) urging Catholics to boycott the performance or face possible excommunication. The reason was partly due to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s treatment of the subject, which combined aspects of the saint’s story with pagan and homoerotic elements of Adonis worship. But good, old-fashioned chauvinism and bigotry also reared their twin heads, for the dancer playing St Sebastian, heaven forefend, was a woman, and double hex, she was Jewish. Could it have been any worse? Oh yes, much worse, if someone had whispered in the archbishop’s ear that Rubinstein was also an out-of-the-closet lesbian. Debussy sure knew how to pick them; read further down about his next stage effort, Khamma. With Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien he won the trifecta for political incorrectness, the result being that the work never entered the repertoire as it was written. In various adaptations and abridgements, however, it was taken up on occasion by notable conductors such as Ansermet, Monteux, Bernstein, and Tilson Thomas.

While no one I know is clamoring for a complete recording of the original work—its five acts last more than five hours, longer, I believe, than Wagner’s longest single opera—based on the excerpts contained in the Symphonic Fragments, one would have to grant that Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien contains some of Debussy’s most beautiful music—Debussy’s Parsifal, some have called it. With this new release, Naxos is competing against its own 1992 recording of the Fragments by Alexander Rahbari and the Brussels Belgian Radio & TV Philharmonic Orchestra, a CD I’ve hung onto for a fine performance of Debussy’s Images; but this entry from Jun Märkl and the Lyon National Orchestra outclasses the Rahbari in both finesse of orchestral playing and recorded sound. A performance by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA is a classic, but it’s in mono; newer, though hardly recent, versions by Dutoit and Barenboim now appear to come packaged only in two-disc sets. So, this latest volume in Naxos’s Debussy survey is strongly recommended.

One really does wonder about Debussy’s instincts for picking partners. Not long after the Saint Sébastien fiasco, he hooked up with another dancer/actress/choreographer, Canadian Maud Allan. Compared to Allan, Ida Rubinstein was a saint. Allan spent her early years (the late 1880s through the mid 1890s) in that bawdy Bagdad-by-the-Bay known as San Francisco, where her brother was hanged for the murder of two women. In 1895 she moved to Berlin to study piano at the Hochschule für Musik, but in 1900, desperate for money, she abandoned her studies to publish a sex manual for women titled Illustriertes Konversations-Lexikon der Frau.

She became quite famous—some would say infamous—in Vienna and then England for her exposé of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s play, which had been banned in England by the Lord Chamberlain. Then things got really ugly. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, a British MP, Noel Pemberton Billing, published a damning diatribe, titled of all things, “The Cult of the Clitoris,” in which he charged that Allan was a lesbian associate of German wartime conspirators (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried). She sued for libel, but lost in a sensational trial during which “she was accused of practicing many of the sexually charged acts depicted (or implied) in Wilde’s writings herself, including necrophilia.” To cast further aspersions on her character and cause her still more shame, “her brother’s crimes were also dredged up to suggest there was a background of sexual insanity in her family.” Allan returned to the U.S., where she taught dance and lived with her lover, Verna Aldrich, until she died in Los Angeles in 1956.

As you can see, most of the really scandalous events happened during and after the war, but Allan had already published her women’s sex manual when Debussy teamed up with her in 1912 to produce the “danced legend” Khamma. There must have been something in the air at the time about virgins being sacrificed (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, 1913) and lunatic Lizzies dancing themselves to death in rapturous glee over the murder of mothers and fathers (Strauss’s Elektra, 1909). The Khamma scenario presents yet another variation on a not dissimilar theme. Khamma, an Egyptian virgin priestess, saves her country from invasion by dancing in front of a statue of Amun-Ra. Whipping herself into a frenzied state of mounting ecstasy, she dances wildly until she drops dead.

From the outset, there was bad blood between Debussy and Allan—he should have known who he was getting involved with—so much so that partway through the project he realized he couldn’t work with her and handed over the task of completing the score to Charles Koechlin. The music following the point at which the High Priest offers his supplication is by Koechlin, not Debussy.

The disc closes with two short works. Debussy sketched music in 1904 for a planned score of incidental music to King Lear. He soon lost interest in the project, leaving the two movements to be orchestrated by J. Roger-Ducasse. The disc also contains the Cortège et air de danse extracted from the one-act cantata or scène lyrique, L’Enfant prodigue.

One can’t be sure if this is the final volume in the Märkl/Naxos Debussy survey [Volume 5 - released in February 2011]. But clearly, it presents some of the composer’s less frequently heard works—some, in part, not written by Debussy, and some, either all or in part, orchestrated by others. So it would seem there is little left at the bottom of the cookie jar for Märkl and Naxos but crumbs. There is some very beautiful music on this disc, even if not all of it is by Debussy, and the playing and recording are excellent. So, yes, strongly recommended.

Roger Nichols
BBC Music Magazine, January 2011

Both [Debussy’s] ‘mystery’ Le martyre de Saint Sébastien and his ‘danced legend’ Khamma have suffered unjustified neglect. This recording will, I hope, do much to restore the balance. The four symphonic fragments and the prelude ‘Le chamber magique’ contain much of the ‘mystery’s best music…and Märkl draws beautiful playing from the Lyon orchestra, descending to true but telling pianissimos. If anything they play even better in Khamma, which comes over as one of Debussy’s most inventive works.

Ballet Review, December 2010

After Pelléas Debussy never completed another opera, but his scores for the theater include the ballets Jeux and Khamma, music for D’Annunzio’s sacred-exotic play LeMartyre de Saint Sébastien, and two pieces for King Lear. Khamma, légende dansée, commissioned by Maud Allan in 1912, shows an Egyptian temple dancer offering her dances to the god to save her city and Amon-Ra accepts them as Khamma dies. Never presented in Debussy’s lifetime, it was first played in 1924, but not choreographed until 1947. Very different from Jeux, it was largely orchestrated by Charles Koechlin, a subtle, atmospheric score with distant fanfares, its controlled passion glowing darkly before rising to a climax and then fading away.

The rather more familiar “fragments” for Le Martyre, written about the same time, are exotic in different ways, but equally atmospheric. It must have been a sumptuous production, with Ida Rubinstein declaiming D’Annunzio’s lines, Debussy’s rich score, Bakst’s luscious scenery, and Fokine’s choreography. The two fanfares for Lear and the Cortège and Dance from his early cantata on the prodigal son nicely fill out this attractive gathering of Debussy’s lesser-known scores, all idiomatically performed by Märkl and his Lyon orchestra, well recorded and with good notes.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Le martyre de Saint Sébastien is a very long play by Gabriele d’Annunzio. It was written for Ida Rubinstein during the time he spent in France, in order to avoid d’Annunzio’s creditors in Italy. Debussy wrote a large amount of music for the production but the play was not a success. Fortunately, Debussy’s music contains some of his best work and it has been recorded many times, both complete and in the suite of Symphonic Fragments. Earlier this year, Ansermet’s recording of almost an hour’s worth of the music was re-issued (Decca Eloquence 480 0130) and Pierre Monteux recorded the Fragments with the London Symphony Orchestra (only available as part of a very tempting 7 CD set, Decca 000797902). I cannot recommend these recordings too highly for both Ansermet and Monteux knew Debussy and have his music in their blood, which gives their performances a deeper understanding of the composer’s work which it is impossible for other conductors to achieve. Indeed, this is just about as near to having the composer himself conducting as you can get. But this isn’t to denigrate Märkl’s recording which is very fine indeed. He achieves the mystical quality essential to this work, restraint, chaste beauty, delicacy are all paramount in his interpretation and the orchestra responds with playing of great beauty and refinement. Ansermet offers the vocal sections as well, in his recording, but the Fragments given here make a fine and most satisfying suite and Märkl is to be praised for such an accomplished exposition of the music.

Khamma also appeared in the Ansermet re-issue and Märkl takes about two and a half minutes longer than his colleague but this music can take that for it is elusive and sensual. Perhaps not Debussy at his best—he wrote the piece for a commission of 10,000 francs and lost interest, leaving part of the orchestration to the immensely talented, and still much under-rated, Charles Koechlin. Märkl has a stronger grip on the music, and thus gives a more exciting performance than Ansermet, but both are valid interpretations.

The two fanfares are all that Debussy wrote of some incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. They’re regal and colourful, and possess a suavity which is most unexpected. The Cortège et air de danse from the cantata L’Enfant prodigue, which won Debussy the coveted Prix de Rome, is a nicely flavoured excerpt in the eastern mode. It was beloved by Beecham as a lollipop.

This is a fine disk, and at the modest price it’s a real bargain, especially with such good recording and notes.

Geoffrey Norris
Gramophone, November 2010

Theatre music of variable quality here revealed in subtle and sensitive readings

Reaching Vol 4 in their survey of Debussy’s orchestral works, the Lyon National Orchestra and Jun Märkl focus on two controversial theatre pieces, adding some snippets from incidental music to King Lear (orchestrated by Jean Roger-Ducasse) and an excerpt from the cantata L’enfant prodigue with which Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884. These fill-ups are useful to have but inevitably the main interest lies in Le martyre de Saint Sébastien and the rarely heard Khamma.

The latter is real mish-mash, a légende dansée commissioned in 1911 by the colourful Canadian-born dancer and suggestive Dance of the Seven Veils specialist, Maude Allan. Debussy lost patience with the Egyptian plot and with La Allan, a fact that is readily borne out by the score. There are tantalising glimpses of what he was going to achieve immediately afterwards in Jeux, but equally there are whole pages in which inspiration is at a low ebb. Much of the orchestration was done by Charles Koechlin, by no means badly, but Khamma, which was not staged until 1947, hardly represents Debussy at his best.

Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, billed as a mystère, is a different matter. The 1911 Paris production of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play with Debussy’s music was proscribed by the local archbishop on account of its homoerotic content and its implications of pagan Adonis-worship, but here Debussy was much more in control and creatively stimulated. The performance conveys the music’s subtle seductiveness with a sure and refined sense of colour.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, November 2010

In keeping with the aesthetic that he adopted with his opera Pélleas et Mélisande in 1902, Claude Debussy developed a more sophisticated musical language that deliberately eschewed romantic overstatement in favor of a purely lyrical approach. Both the major works on this disc, le Martyr de Saint Sébastien and Khamma, reflect this trend in various ways.

That being the case, it is good that we have Jun Märkl conducting both pieces, plus a trio of choice encores, in splendidly crafted and carefully nuanced readings that bring Debussy’s intentions to light. Consider the story elements of The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, for instance: Pagan gods and an implacable Roman emperor bent on persecuting all who refuse to bow to them, magicians in a magic chamber, and an Adonis-like captain who stands up for the one true God and is sentenced to die by the arrows of his own archers for his heroism, to say nothing of the mysterious appearance of the Good Shepherd while all this is going on. What a French romantic, say Saint-Saëns, would have made of all this makes one shudder in anticipation. With Debussy in his post-Pélleas form, the touches are laid on much more subtly, so that a highly nuanced approach such as Märkl brings to this work pays handsome dividends.

Khamma, another dance + symphony conception, is the story of a temple danseuse of Ancient Egypt who dances before a black obsidian statue of Amon-Ra in order to invoke the god’s intercession for her beleaguered people, then dies in a moment of ecstasy when the statue comes to life amid a burst of thunder and lightning. As we might guess, the music is more than customarily dramatic for late-period Debussy at this point. But the quieter, more somber moments and the subtle contrasts of darkness and light leading up to this point are beautifully managed by Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon, so that the 21 minute work is never allowed to sag in terms of our expectations.

The program fillers include two fine excerpts from a projected suite of incidental music for Shakespeare’s King Lear that Debussy never completed, Fanfare d’ouverture and Le Sommeil de Lear (The Sleep of Lear). Together, they provide a tantalizing glimpse of what the composer might have done had he finished the project. The Cortége and air de danse from The Prodigal Son, an early work from Debussy’s Prix de Rome period, give am impression of what an ardent young romantic he was before he developed his distinctive style., September 2010

There is a bit of Debussy music for a Shakespeare play—King Lear—on the fourth fine Naxos CD of the French composer’s orchestral music, with Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Debussy intended to create incidental music for the whole play, but completed only two numbers and did not orchestrate them—that was done by J. Roger-Ducasse. The short fanfare and sleep sequence are evocative elements of what might have been. The more-substantial works on this CD are Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, which is well known, and Khamma, which is not. The first of these works is represented here by préludes, fanfares and symphonic fragments, which present episodic elements from a piece once placed on the Catholic Index of banned works because of its homoerotic nature. The music is typical of Debussy in its atmospheric tone painting. Khamma, a “danced legend” set in Egypt, has a number of interesting orchestral touches, both in the portion orchestrated by the composer and in the latter part, whose orchestration is by Charles Koechlin. Written in 1911–1912, it has some of the exoticism of Stravinsky’s contemporary Rite of Spring, but none of the Russian composer’s tonally and rhythmically challenging elements. It is effective scene painting, if not an especially compelling work. The final piece on this disc, The Prodigal Son, was a very early work—written in 1884, when the composer was 22—that was revised more than two decades later. The work as a whole is a cantata; Märkl here conducts a Cortège et air de danse portraying a pleasant pastoral scene and providing a delicate conclusion to this CD.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Out of the shadow of that justly famous Guido Cantelli recording of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien comes this intrinsically French performance from the Lyon orchestra. The literary work by the Italian, Gabriele D’Annuzio, had caused a protest from the Catholic church before its cause was taken up by the Russian dancer, Ida Rubinstein. She had already caused outrage with her Salome when she choreographed the ballet sequences to music by Debussy to D’Annuzio’s play, and with this background there was little wonder it was quickly dropped from the stage repertoire. Debussy, trying to salvage some of the music, published a thirty minute concert suite, though that failed to find a place beside his major orchestral scores. Jun Märkl and his Lyon players seek the subtle colours that take us back to the shadowy aspects of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, and we hear wispy strands of ghost-like images to capture our imagination. The ballet Khamma gave Debussy even more regrets, having had no sympathy for the dancer Maude Allan who had commissioned it, and it was left to Charles Koechlin to complete the orchestration. Debussy also got no further than two fragments—later orchestrated by Roger-Ducasse—foe his projected incidental music to Shakespeare’s King Lear. The disc is completed by the Cortège et air de danse from L’enfant prodigue, a work originally written for the 1884 Prix de Rome Competition. This is the fourth volume in Markl’s complete orchestral works of Debussy, with playing and recording of exemplary quality.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group