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Gil French
American Record Guide, July 2011

La Boite a Joujoux (The Toy Box): now here’s a piece I’ve never liked until now!

Six Epigraphes Antiques[’] warm, resonant, utterly transparent, best-seat-in-the-house engineering lets you bathe in Märkl’s fluid, ideal pacing and the soloists’ exquisite musicianship.

The Toy Box and Epigraphes are worth the whole album.

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

Geoffrey Norris
Gramophone, July 2011

DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 5 (Märkl) - La boite a joujoux / Estampes Nos. 1 and 2 / L’isle joyeuse / 6 Epigraphes antiques 8.572568
DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 6 (Märkl) - Suite bergamasque / Petite suite / En blanc et noir 8.572583

Debussy’s music recast for orchestra by his many friends and admirers

Debussy was fortunate in having friends around him who were so thoroughly steeped in his style as to be able to replicate it. Strictly speaking, these two instalments in the Orchestre National de Lyon’s excellent series are not of “Debussy Orchestral Works” but of works orchestrated by others. One exception is La boîte à joujoux, the enchanting children’s ballet that Debussy composed in 1913 but which was not staged until 1921, after his death. He himself wrote the short score and made a start on the orchestration but it was completed by his friend André Caplet. Caplet’s knowledge of Debussy’s world of sound was so profound that it’s impossible to detect any joins, as it were, and it is a pure joy that such magical, affectionate and playful music was given life by such a sympathetic hand. It is performed with the sensitivity, warmth of character, fluency and discerning treatment of instrumental timbre that have been the hallmarks of the Lyon orchestra’s playing and Jun Märkl’s conducting on all four of their previous Debussy discs.

Caplet’s assimilation of Debussy’s colour palette is equally evident in his orchestration of “Pagodes” from the set of piano pieces Estampes, Debussy’s contemporary Paul-Henri Büsser contributing an arrangement of “Soirée dans Grenade” from the same set that nicely conveys its Spanish sultriness. The Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari, with Debussy’s approval, recast L’isle joyeuse in scintillating orchestral guise, and Ernest Ansermet brought a particularly haunting atmosphere to the Six Epigraphes antiques.

Some of the orchestral versions in Vol 6 are probably just as well known as their keyboard originals, particularly Büsser’s of the Petite Suite, done with the utmost finesse. He also resurrected, under Debussy’s watchful eye, the orchestral score of Printemps, consumed by a fire at the binder’s. Robin Holloway’s 2002 version of En blanc et noir breathes Debussian air, as does Tony Finno’s realisation of the early Symphony, although the work itself suggests that symphonic writing was not perhaps Debussy’s natural métier.

James Miller
Fanfare, July 2011

It does not appear that Debussy would have objected, in principle, to transcriptions of his music, since he accompanied the violinist Arthur Hartman in the latter’s transcription of La Fille aux chevaux de lin and permitted others to orchestrate the Petite Suite (Büsser), Childrens’ Corner (Caplet), Khamma (Koechlin), and La Boîte à joujoux. Actually, Debussy began orchestrating La Boîte à joujoux (The Box of Toys) but, with the outbreak of World War I making a performance unlikely in the near future and the drain on his strength from the cancer that eventually killed him in 1918, he delegated the job of completing the orchestration to André Caplet, who had been helpful on other occasions. The problem with the score is that the music, which deals with a day in the life of the inhabitants of a toy box, is so scenario-driven, so obviously intended to accompany stage action, that it doesn’t work all that well as a concert piece. There might even be difficulties with a staged version, for it is difficult to imagine adult dancers cavorting about for 30 minutes dressed as toys to this simple, tuneful music (the far more sophisticated Nutcracker is in another world). Debussy thought it could be performed as a pantomime by (talented) children, and I think it could work quite charmingly if performed that way. Trying to keep the light touch, Debussy throws in music-box effects; quotes from folk songs, Faust, and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March; and uses Leitmotifs for some of the toy characters. He wrote to his publisher, “I have tried to be clear and even amusing, without any kind of pose.” What fool would own five other recordings of this piece? You’re looking at his review and since I owned them, I had to A-B them with Jun Märkl’s. For the record, they were by Ansermet, Froment, Martinon, Perlea (a Remington LP!), and Tortelier. Märkl, whose performance is the slowest of the bunch (though not by much), also seems the most attuned to the obvious sentiment of the music and, although they’re all good, if I had to live with one recording (and I wish I could), it would be his.

The same situation occurs with respect to Ernest Ansermet’s transcription of Debussy’s Six Épigraphes antiques, originally a piece written for piano duet that was, mostly, derived from incidental music Debussy composed for a mimed recitation of a dozen poems called Chansons de Bilitis. Supposedly written by a sixth-century poet, they were actually composed by Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs. Debussy arranged the six for solo piano, too, and intended to orchestrate them but never got around to it. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have approved of what Ernest Ansermet accomplished, using modern instruments to create an oddly sparse, evocative, vaguely Middle Eastern set of six short pieces with the scent of antiquity about them. Debussy ties it all together with cyclical form, returning to the opening theme of the first Chanson as he closes the sixth one. Once again, I find myself with several alternative recordings of Ansermet’s Épigraphes plus alternative arrangements by Rudolf Escher and Jean-Francois Paillard! Escher’s is similar to Ansermet’s while Paillard’s emphasizes the strings. Once again, Märkl offers the slowest of the performances, but this time he merely holds his own against Emil de Cou, Tadaki Otaka, and Ansermet himself., June 2011

The fifth volume in the very fine Naxos Debussy series by Jun Märkl and Orchestre National de Lyon offers works with very little in common except for the fact that they were all orchestrated by someone other than Debussy. Well, almost all: the composer himself did some of the work on La boîte à joujoux (“The Toy Box”), with the balance handled by André Caplet, whose best-known Debussy orchestration is of Clair de Lune. Other orchestrations here are by conductor Ernest Ansermet, in Six épigraphes antiques; Caplet again in Estampes No. 1; Paul-Henri Büsser in Estampes No. 2; Bernardino Molinari in L’isle joyeuse; and Marius-François Gaillard in Le triomphe de Bacchus, which Gaillard also arranged. The works themselves are of varying interest and quality. Debussy conceived La boîte à joujoux as a ballet both for and by children, to be performed by young people or even by marionettes; but the work was not staged until after the composer’s death. It has some affecting moments, although it is less effective, overall, than the better-known Children’s Corner. The Six épigraphes antiques and Le triomphe de Bacchus are rather naïvely evocative of scenes from the ancient world, tending somewhat to the precious. The two Estampes (taken from a set of three piano pieces—the title means “Prints”) are well-proportioned miniatures, especially the first, which evokes the sound of the Balinese gamelan. L’isle joyeuse, inspired by a picture by Antoine Watteau, is an attractive piece of wistful, pastoral tone-painting. As in the other volumes of this series, Märkl conducts with a sure hand and the orchestra plays with a fine sense of style. The CD will be most appealing to collectors interested in having the entire Naxos series.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, May 2011

I’ve been slow to catch up with this Naxos series of Debussy’s orchestral works. The response to the earlier releases from other reviewers has been so mixed that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to judge this fifth volume for myself. Would I react like Bob Briggs, who was underwhelmed by the first volume, though he thought it worth having overall or like Kevin Sutton, who was more impressed, without quite going overboard or would I side with reviewers elsewhere who have been both more and less positive? The dichotomy is illustrated by the high praise afforded Volumes 3 and 4 in one magazine where another reviewer had been critical of Volumes 1 and 2.

The Epigraphes antiques fare much better than the other works on the new Naxos recording, with echoes of the legend of Bilitis on which they are based, and the Estampes sound genuinely exotic. I don’t remember having heard the fragmentary Triomphe de Bacchus before, but it makes an attractive closing item. As performed here, it deserves to be heard more often.

The recording throughout is bright and transparent—perhaps a little too transparent: I could have wished for a more solid body of sound at times. Though I was not seriously troubled by it…

Volume 5 of Märkl’s Debussy is pretty mixed but I hesitate to reject it outright. I warmed to a second hearing of La Boîte a little more than to the first, so this may be a matter of letting the performance bed down…I should also say that I have read two reviews which praised both the performances and recording, which means that personal taste clearly comes into play here, as so often. How many times have you read a rave write-up from one reviewer only to find the same performance castigated by another?

Perhaps my best advice would be to try to hear La Boîte à joujoux before purchase if possible: subscribers to the Naxos Music Library would be well placed to do just that. I note that Volume 6 is due to be issued in May 2011—8.572583 including my favourite neglected Debussy, Büsser’s orchestration of Printemps. I was able to check that out via the Naxos Music Library a month before release—a useful feature of NML. This time Märkl’s tempi are more appropriate—overall, he’s even faster than Dutoit on Decca and Martinon on EMI (both in budget-price 2-CD sets)—and the performance more amenable to my ears than most of Volume 5. Watch out for a review of Volume 6 in a future Download Roundup.

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, April 2011

The Music Debussy’s languid sensuality was at its most potent when evoking gentle movement, as in the delightful vignettes of his children’s ballet La boîte à joujoux (‘The Toy Box’) and the Estampes’ headily scented evocations of the Orient and Spain.

The Performances This is music celebrated for its shimmering, exotic timbres and sophisticated textural interplay, and so captivating are the results here that one can readily imagine Jun Märkl using a wizard’s wand. The Lyon players create the strange impression of floating on air as points of sound emerge from the near-distance with ear-tweaking lucidity, conjuring up the choreographic nuances of La boîte à joujoux so tangibly it feels as though you could reach out and caress them. The engineering balances detail and atmosphere to glowing perfection.

The Verdict Märkl’s revelatory Debussy series is up there with Müller-Brühl’s Bach as one of the most iridescent musical jewels in Naxos’s crown. These treasurable pieces have never sounded finer on disc.

George Dorris
Ballet Review, April 2011

The last of Debussy’s three original scores for dance, La Boîte à Joujoux was written in 1913 at the request of André Helle, an artist and children’s author, but when war broke out it was left in piano score, with the orchestration just begun. Only in 1919, after Debussy’s death, was it completed by his close associate André Caplet and staged by either Robert Quinault or (according to StéphaneWolff) Mme Mariquita, a version successfully revived at the Opéra Comique in 192 and again, by Quinault, in 19 8. In 1921 Jean Borlin choreographed it for Les Ballets Suédois, touring it widely. It’s a charming score about children’s toys coming to life to love, fight, and grow old together, with witty touches to please the grownups. Caplet’s scoring catches both its charm and its wit.

The other arrangements of Debussy’s piano music on this disc include the Six Antique Epigraphs arranged by Ernest Ansermet from a piano duet (originally supporting spoken poems by Pierre Louys), with an elegant wispiness perfectly caught by Robbins in his 197 ballet. The other pieces, orchestrated by Caplet, Büsser, Molinari, and Gaillard, also work effectively in their new garb—another success for Märkl’s series of Debussy’s orchestral works, with good sound and notes.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, March 2011

...the fifth in Naxos’ ongoing series devoted to orchestral works either by Debussy himself, or arranged by others from his piano music. All of the selections on this CD are from the latter category, beginning with La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box, 1913), which like his earlier Children’s Corner (1906–08) was written for his young daughter. Both pieces were for the most part orchestrated by Debussy’s good friend André Caplet (1878–1925, who was a highly regarded conductor-composer in his own right.

A ballet in seven parts (read the album notes for a detailed description of the scenario), it would be hard to find a more delicately scored impressionistic piece than Boîte…Is there a hint of Paul Dukas’ (1865–1935) Sorcerer’s Apprentice as well as the opening from Stravinsky’s (1882–1971) Rite of Spring (1913) in the prelude? And the next tableau seems to have more Dukas as well as an amusing reference to “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner.

A florid waltz and several delightfully varied dance numbers follow. However, the mood turns momentarily more subdued in the second tableaux until some toy soldiers enter with humorous references [track-4, beginning at 02:29] to the “Soldiers’ Chorus” in the fourth act of Gounod’s (1818–1893) Faust (1859). A mini skirmish breaks out, but quickly ends as the scene concludes peacefully.

The third tableaux is a lovely pastoral with folk overtones, winsome woodwind solos, and a dotty central section. The bustling conclusion has a droll reference to Mendelssohn’s (1809–1847) “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826–42), and segues right into the fourth tableaux.

This begins with a brass fanfare harboring the tune for the old nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The music then becomes more subdued, only to erupt in a burst of Gallic gallantry that oddly enough seems to anticipate “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead,” from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. The tableaux ends as suddenly as it began, followed by a brief epilogue that concludes the ballet with references to the opening prelude and four ff happy-faced chords.

The great Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883–1969) orchestrated the next selection, Six épigraphes antiques (Six Ancient Epigraphs, 1900). Again originally for piano, Debussy wrote these to accompany a recitation of poems drawn from Pierre Louÿs’ (1870–1925) collection known as Les Chansons de Bilitis (The Songs of Bilitis, 1894).

Quintessential Debussy, Ansermet turns these into highly atmospheric symphonic sonnets. The first invokes the rustic world of the god Pan playing his flute. The second and third conjure up melancholic settings not far removed from Nocturnes of the same year. Four and Five are examples of oriental exotica which the impressionists captured so well, while the flighty sixth ends the set unpretentiously.

The first two of Debussy’s three Estampes (Prints, 1903) for piano come next in orchestrations by Caplet (see above) and Henri Büsser (1872–1973) respectively. A friend of Debussy as well as a conductor-composer himself, many will remember the latter as the arranger of the ever popular Petite Suite (1886–89).

Labelled “Pagodes” (“Pagodas”), Caplet instills his symphonic expansion of Estampes No. 1 with an overpowering sense of Sino-mysticism. It couldn’t be more different from Estampes No. 2 titled “La soirée dans Grenade” (“An Evening in Granada”), where Büsser creates a tasty tapas anticipating the Iberian segment in Images (1905–12).

The next selection is a transcription by Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari (1880–1952) of Debussy’s piano piece L’Isle joyeuse (The Joyous Isle, 1904). It may well have been inspired by Antoine Watteau’s (1684–1721) painting The Embarkation of Cythera (1717), and is a gorgeous symphonic miniature. It’s filled with an infectious joy and giddiness like the more motive moments soon to inhabit La Mer (1905).

The disc concludes with a realization by French pianist-composer-conductor Marius-François Gaillard (1900–1973) of Le triomphe de Bacchus (The Triumph of Bacchus, 1882). It’s based on the only surviving fragment of a student piano piece Claude was working on at the Conservatoire in 1882, but eventually abandoned. Granted it could almost be out of a Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) tone poem, however there are flashes of pentatonism auguring his emergence as the father of French impressionist music.

As on their four previous Debussy volumes for Naxos (8.570759, 8.570993, 8.572296 and 8.572297), German-born conductor Jun Märkl and the Lyon National Orchestra deliver dynamically articulated, sensitively phrased readings of these colorful scores. Maestro Märkl is to be commended for his dexterous handling of music that’s childishly spontaneous one minute and sensuously withdrawn the next.

In attempting to capture all the detail of intricately scored works like these, many recording engineers would resort to miking and mixing techniques producing desiccated, in-your-face sonics. But that’s not the case here where the soundstage projected is highly focused without seeming overly confined. Done at the Lyon Auditorium on three separate occasions between 2009 and 2010, the recordings sound consistent, and the orchestral timbre is bright. You may notice some low end noise [tracks 5 and 9] probably due to outside traffic.

Roger Nichols
BBC Music Magazine, March 2011

André Caplet’s [orchestration] of Une boîte à joujoux, building on the three-and-a-half minutes of Debussy’s own, doesn’t miss a trick in this delightful work, which teases us with the thought of the operetta Debussy never wrote…Jun Märkl conducts with spirit and finesse

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2011

A disc of Claude Debussy’s works that were either completed or orchestrated by others, yet all have become familiar in their colourful attire. Most were composed in the latter part of his life, and though work had begun on orchestrating La boite a joujoux, the task was eventually entrusted to Andre Caplet. It was a piece of lighthearted fun, Debussy not living long enough to see the eventual ballet. I always feel that the famous conductor, Ernest Ansermet, was too restrained in his orchestral adaptation Six epigraphes antiques, a work for piano duet, and maybe he never quite captured the Debussy idiom until he reached the sensuousness of the fourth picture, Pour la danseuse aux crotales, and the following seductive Pour l’Egyptienne. We return to Caplet for a brilliantly lit Pagodes from the three piano pieces, Estampes, while Paul-Henri Busser sees La soiree dans Grenade through the eyes of Ravel. The composer gave his approval to Bernardino Molinari’s orchestration of L’Isle joyeuse, but music for Le triomphe de Bacchus, written in his student days, was only discovered after his death, and does not sound remotely like Debussy in its orchestration by Marius-Francois Gaillard. The Lyon Orchestra under their young German conductor, Jun Märkl, offer a wealth of subtle colours, the quality of the woodwind having a nice warming vibrato. Play with the volume set a few notches higher than normal to bring this cleanly delineated sound to life.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group