Home listening: Debussy the great modernist, ‘more radical than Stravinsky’

Tom Service hails the French composer’s abstract music-making, while Warner Classics and Deutsche Grammophon go head to head with centenary Complete Works box sets

• One hundred years ago today, the composer Claude Debussy died in Paris, at the height of first world war air raids on the city. In his 55 turbulent years, often ostracised by society for his passionate affairs and bad behaviour, he had transformed the musical world with a wholly distinctive new musical language. His influence seems ever more potent and important as time goes on.

Alongside Stravinsky and Schoenberg, it was Debussy who created the sound of the 20th century, not by cutting his roots with tradition, but by dissolving formal boundaries to create a magical new grammar of sound out of the materials of the past.

The centenary is being well marked by BBC Radio 3, launched with a typically provocative edition of The Listening Service from Tom Service, hailing Debussy for his “visceral violence” as a “creator of nightmares” who was “more radical than Stravinsky”, while over recent days Donald Macleod has explored him in Composer of the Week (all available as podcasts and on iPlayer).

Warner Classics: Debussy Complete Works

• Two big rival boxes of Debussy CDs have appeared: both are labelled Complete Works, but Warner Classics boasts 33 discs and Deutsche Grammophon a mere 22. Warner’s is the more musicologically complete, with all the extant transcriptions and arrangements alongside the masterpieces, and a thorough exploration of the composer’s very early work which has uncovered two premieres, the Chanson des brises (1882) for soprano, women’s choir and piano, and, even more interesting, Diane au bois, a tantalising, fragmentary mini opera of 1885-7.

Deutsche Grammophon: Debussy Complete Works

• Warner’s admirable thoroughness is oddly compromised by the absence of texts and translations for the vocal works, even online. DG has texts but less content; it does however find room for a three-disc historical bonus of remarkable old recordings, some new to disc. And, on balance, DG’s performances of the great classics win out, especially with two superb contrasting accounts of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Abbado’s sumptuous version on CD, and the great Boulez/Peter Stein WNO production on DVD.

Contributor

Nicholas Kenyon

The GuardianTramp

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