During the First World War, unwell and disillusioned, the self-styled “musicien Française” Claude Debussy embarked on a series of six sonatas for diverse instruments. He only lived to complete three, but these elusive late works can be numbered among his masterpieces. All are in classical three movement form, but there the relationship to tradition ends: Debussy’s harmony, fluid thematic development and muted colours are all his own.
This exquisite new recording couples the sonatas with the early Piano Trio, written when the composer was 18 but unpublished until 1986. An exuberant work, it is barely identifiable as Debussy, containing hints of Fauré, Franck and the composer’s teacher Massenet. Still, despite its immaturity it is worth a listen, especially when played by such outstanding young performers.
These French musicians are friends as well as regular colleagues. Violist Caussé is the elder statesman, but Capuçon and Pahud are probably best known and the most prolific recording artists. Chamayou was recently acclaimed for his superb recordings of Franck and Ravel, while 23-year-old Moreau is an exciting new discovery.
What they bring to this program is twofold: innate sensitivity to Debussy’s idiosyncratic lyricism and apparent aloofness, and a detailed 21st-century way of characterising individual phrases. This is evident in Capuçon’s approach to the Violin Sonata: detached notes are well and truly detached, lyrical lines suspended in thin air. Those of us who learnt the piece from Oistrakh’s performance might find it practically unrecognisable. Capuçon and Chamayou have plenty to say – and they say it in French.
Moreau gives us the best of both worlds. He is detailed, and more nimble than Rostropovich (in his Decca recording with Benjamin Britten). If anything, Moreau’s elegance and warmth put him in the line of the great French cellists: Pierre Fournier and Paul Tortelier. This is a superior rendition of the least known of the sonatas, and Chamayou proves a magnificent partner (as he is throughout). In the Piano Trio, the two string players and pianist appropriately adopt a heart-on-sleeve romantic style.
Pahud’s larger than life flute dominates the Trio Sonata, which gets a brisk, muscular performance. None of these six musicians is overly concerned with half-lights or shades of grey; even Langlamet’s harp playing is bracingly red-blooded. Pahud caps the recital with Syrinx, a sinuous solo piece for flute lifted from Debussy’s incidental music to Psyché, and now in the repertoire of every budding classical flautist.