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Debussy: Nocturnes; La Damoiselle élue; Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
Claude Debussy, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Paula Rasmussen
Debussy: Nocturnes; La Damoiselle élue; Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (8) - Disc #1

Esa-Pekka Salonen's take on these Debussy classics is a shade faster than most, but not so much so as to destroy the delicate tapestries of the music. This is especially true in Nocturnes. Salonen's advantage here is that ...  more »


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Esa-Pekka Salonen's take on these Debussy classics is a shade faster than most, but not so much so as to destroy the delicate tapestries of the music. This is especially true in Nocturnes. Salonen's advantage here is that he's got the Los Angeles Philharmonic whose sound is rich and, where it needs to be, deep. This strength can be found in the beautiful La Damoiselle elue (The Blessed Damozel), based on poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dawn Upshaw's voice has never sounded so fine. Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien, a somber symphonic fragment, is almost uncharacteristic of the composer. Recommended anyway. --Paul Cook

CD Reviews

Lesser-known Debussy
Brett A. Kniess | Madison, WI | 11/29/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This offering from Sony Classics features three lesser-known works by the French impressionist master Claude Debussy. The three Nocturnes (Nuages, Fetes, and Sirenes) show Debussy at his most visual. He describes Nuages as the slow changing night sky, Fetes as a night festival, and Sirenes as a song heard on the sea. Nuages focuses on the shifting of orchestral colors through lush chord changes and expansive melodic lines. Fetes is more extroverted, featuring ever-changing irregular rhythms, growing into a march, complete with tricky fanfares and eventually fading into the evening. Sirenes adds the element of wordless women's choir, an effect that is rather haunting. The undulating motion of voices mixing duples and triples keeps an uneasy feeling of being at sea, but the sultriness of being lured further to sea by some unearthliness. Captivating.

The Blessed Damozel is a 20-minute work for orchestra, soprano, and 4-part women's chorus. It is a sentimental setting of a poem, by the same name, by Dante Rossetti. The story tells of a woman in heaven who wishes she could be with her lover, a man who is still on Earth. The soprano part is sung by the masterful Dawn Upshaw, who performs beautifully. The music is of a young Debussy, at least compared to the other works on this disk, but his voice is clear. It is nice to have this rarely performed miniature masterpiece.

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is about a young officer who is ordered to have himself killed by his own archers because he had sympathy over the persecution of Christians. This concert suite is in four movements (The Court of the Lilies, Ecstatic Dance, The Passion, and The Good Shepherd). The first movement is a short chorale-like prelude, the second is the youths' vision of sympathy for the Christians while performing trials on hot coals, the third is Sebastian's awaiting martyrdom, and the fourth is the site of the martyrdom. This is the most personal and intense music I have ever heard from Debussy. Rather subdued, Debussy lets you know this is serious music, and the tone doesn't change until the last four bars of the last movement when Sebastian views the "good shepherd".

The playing by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen is extraodinary; many hours have been put into the details of these works. The sound is vivid and vibrant. The chorus is also very good and the soloist outstanding. While I suggest you start with more familiar Debussy if you are new to his music (try Salonen's 2nd Debussy outing on Sony or Boulez on DG), these less-performed works are a nice completion to the works of Debussy, and excellently performed."
Gleaming, Radiant Debussy from Esa-Pekka Salonen and Company
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 06/07/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Fascinating as it has been hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen develop his repertoire during his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic - a repertoire that spreads from the High Romantics through the 20th Century masterworks to the works being composed today - it is still refreshing to remember his special affinity for Debussy's magical realm of harmony and immaculate orchestration. This CD is now fifteen years old and it sounds as fresh as the conductor's current involvement with this deceptively complex composer's music. This recording (made in UCLA's Royce Hall and not recorded in the perfect acoustic of Disney Hall as are the current issues) is spacious, with surprising clarity and allows the orchestra, the chorus of Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the two superb soloists to be heard in perfect balance.

The recording begins with the Nocturnes - Nuages, Fetes, Sirenes - in what for this listener is the most atmospheric performance on record. The orchestral sound is warm and rich and yet airy enough to keep each of the three works floating. Salonen's approach is the 'straight from the score' manner, allowing the mysteries of Debussy's orchestration to be completely delineated while maintaining the 'impressions' Debussy created. The vocal portion of Sirenes is carefully woven into the fabric of the orchestra, enhancing rather than pulling focus away from the complete impression.

'La Damoiselle élue' is an early Debussy work, said to be composed when the composer remained under the influence of Wagner's 'Parsifal', and is a lyrical setting of Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'The Blessed Damosel'. The gently moody work is a brief but profoundly moving 'story' narrated by the superb mezzo-soprano Paula Rasmussen and the chorus of women's voices about the longings for transcendence of the Damosel, a small but perfectly inhabited role for the miraculous Dawn Upshaw. it is a masterpiece of collaborative music making, and Salonen molds it into a pearl that holds so many of the secrets that Debussy would later fully realize in his major works.

The final piece is a performance of four fragments from the 1911 incidental music for the mystery play 'Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien', a complicated five-hour long work by Gabriele D'Annunzio for drama, dancing, visual stage effects, singing and orchestral music to recreate the drama of the persecution and martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Hearing Salonen's approach to these brief fragments makes one wish for a revival of this 'adventure' presentation. The music is glowingly beautiful and again has many phrases and progressions that were the seeds for later works. Salonen and the LA Phil offer a seamless and luxurious performance. This recording may now be fifteen years old but the music and performance are fresh and definitive. It has become a gold standard for these early Debussy works. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, June 08"
The World Of Debussy
Erik North | San Gabriel, CA USA | 10/10/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Two rarities from Claude Debussy's wide-ranging impressionist music terrain are placed together with one of his most popular works on this excellent 1993 recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Perhaps surpassed only by Pierre Boulez in the realm of Debussy interpreters, Salonen and the orchestra weave a textural soundscape of mystical scope.The rarely heard cantata "La Damoiselle Elue", based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rozetti, is superbly performed by the orchestra and a fine pair of vocalists, Dawn Upshaw and Paula Rasmussen, along with the women of the world-famous Los Angeles Master Chorale. The orchestra shines on its own in the even rarer "Martyrdom Of St. Sebastien", whose music Debussy composed for a play by the exiled Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio.The opening work, the celebrated three-part suite "Nocturnes", is of course one of the high watermarks of all time in classical music. In this work, Debussy depicts his impressions and special effects of light: "Clouds"; "Festivals"; and "Sirens." This last section, based like "La Mer" on his impressions of the sea, features a wordless female choir--and once again, the L.A. Master Chorale's women's section performs admirably in their role.For anyone with a taste of musical impressionism in general and Debussy in particular, this recording is one well worth searching for."