Debussy's Luminous Piano Music Recast for Orchestra

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Listening to the orchestration of a familiar work can be a little like watching a colorized "Casablanca" or “The Maltese Falcon.” The original chiaroscuro shadows are washed out in favor of unnatural, pasty hues. Obviousness replaces ambiguity. In some cases, a creator's intentions are trashed.

Yet Claude Debussy was more fortunate. The composer had a number of colleagues and later admirers who were intimately familiar with his style, and at their best, they were able to not only translate but transform his works for piano to orchestra. In the sixth volume of their highly regarded survey of Debussy orchestral works, Jun Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon present five diverse works originally written for solo and duo-piano in striking orchestrations.

Of particular interest is Debussy’s one and only attempt at writing a symphony, only the first movement of which he completed. American composer-arranger Tony Finno provides an inspired orchestration of this neglected gem of a piece. There’s Robin Holloway’s inspired 2004 rescoring of En blanc et noir, in which the arranger blended some orchestration ideas from Debussy's Jeux, while pointing to the work's Stravinsky tendencies.

Also on this collection are the Suite bergamasque, originally for piano, in orchestrations by Debussy contemporaries Gustave Cloez (three movements) and André Caplet (one: the ubiquitous Clair de lune) and Printemps, originally for wordless female chorus and orchestra, heard here in a Henri Büsser arrangement without chorus. Büsser also contributes a graceful realization of the Petite Suite (made under Debussy’s watchful eye). While some listeners may prefer the piano originals at the end of the day, Märkl and the Lyron Orchestra endeavor to make every piece sound like a treasured masterwork. 

Weigh in: What do you think of orchestrations? Are they vandalizing the originals, like poorly colorized films? Or are they breathing fresh life into familiar pieces?

Orchestre National de Lyon
Jun Märkl, conductor
Debussy Orchestral Works, Vol. 6 - Suite bergamasque / Petite suite / En blanc et noir
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