Harmonia Mundi continues its comprehensive series of the works of Claude Debussy with this new 2 CD set of Debussy's songs for voice and piano, Harmonie du soir, featuring two pairs of performers, Sophie Karthäuser and Eugene Asti, with Stéphane Degout and Alain Planès. Of the hundred Mélodies which Debussy completed, forty are included here, interspersed like refreshments between courses by individual sections from Images oubliées, which Planès included in his recording of Debussy's complete works for piano earlier this year.
Nuit d'étoiles has received so many glorious performances that they would be hard to eclipse, but Karthäuser and Asti give a good account. In Mandoline, the clarity of Karthäuser's diction and the agility of Asti's, playing makes the song shine. The two books of Fêtes galantes are divided between the two pairs of performers. Degout and Planès are impressive in the second set. A wonderful Les Ingénues, which captures the right tone of sardoniuc sensuality, also expressed in Le Faune, who is a more mysterious entity than mere terracotta statue, and Colloque sentimental, where Degout and Planès shape the pauses so well that the silences speak as pointedly as the text.
Stylish performances, too, of the Trois Mélodies to poems by Paul Verlaine, and Trois chansons de France. These latter are unusual in Debussy's oeuvre, being settings of Charles d'Orléans and the 17th century poet Tristan L'Hermite. Two Rondels frame the central song, setting a mysterious mood. "Le temps a laissié son manteau de vent, de froidure et de pluye" sings Degout. the piano lines trembles, texture upon texture. The central song is La Grotte, where two lovers wander, near a pond where. "l'onde lutte avec les cailloux, et la lumière avecque l'ombre". In this pond, Narcicuss drowned, lost in his reflection. The mini cycle ends with desolation. "Pour que Plaisance est moret, ce May, suis vestu de noir". Written in 1904, these songs reflect something of Pelléas et Mélisande, with their imagery of light and dark, promise and death. As in the opera, the vocal lines rise and fall, the piano rippling hypnotically around the voice. Degout is one of the great Pelléas interpreters of our time, so the excellence of this set should come as no suprise. The Trois chansons de France are followed by Trois ballades de François Villon. (1910). Villon's poetry is more ornate, Debussy's setting respecting cadence and metre, which Degout sings with resonant, passionate richness.
On the second disc, there are five settings of poems by Paul Bourget, completed separately by Debussy at different dates, reflecting the composer's fondness for the poet. Romance (voici que le printemps) is elegant, well suited to Karthäuser's refined timbre, and Les Cloches is built around circular figures defined with charm by Asti. In Beau Soir, the piano line is limpid, caressing the voice, while the lilting melody of Paysage sentimental has charm. Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé present more substantial material for Degout and Planès. The love scene, such as it is, is sinister, filled with foreboding. "Sur l'eau morte ou la fauve agonie des feuilles erre au vent et cresuse un froid villon". In Soupir, the piano part is heavy, almost metallic, Degout singing with haunted gravitas. Together with Placet futile and Éventail, which extend the mood, this cycle is striking, its ambiguous textures unsettling, evoking the aesthetic of the years after the war, and the music thereof, which Debussy would not live to experience. As respite, the softer world of Fleurs des blès and la Belle au bois dormant with Karthäuser and Asti before returning to the darker world of Le promenoir des deux amants, a group of songs to poems by Tristan L'Hermite. This setting of the same text as La Grotte in Trois chansons de France is followed by two songs where the mood is distinctly darker : to use the Pelléas et Mélisande analogy, we're now in the final bedchamber, rather than the castle grounds. Hence the steady, funeral pace and the measured, solemn tones in Degout’s singing. A brief piano interlude (Les soirs illuminés par l'ardour du charbon) while not connected to the songs extends their impact. The collection concludes with Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire presented by Karthäuser and Asti.