Republished 4/21/11 with corrections/additions.

Le Tombeau de Debussy, Works by 10 Composers in Memorial Tribute to Claude Debussy; Debussy, Images, Book II; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle joyeuse; & Masques. Randall Love, piano (Blüthner, 1907); Centaur CRC 3007, © 2010, TT 61:32, $16.00.

The disk takes its title from a collection of works published in a special December 1920 issue of La Revue Musicale as a memorial tribute to Debussy, who died of cancer in 1918. The editor, Henri Prunières, invited ten composers to contribute a short work; all but three of them gave works for solo piano. In this recording, other works for solo piano by their composers are substituted for two of those and a subsequent transcription for piano by the composer of the third is played. Some of the composers subsequently incorporated their contributions into other compositions. The composers and works, in playing order (publication order was different), are:

Paul Dukas, “La plainte, au loin, du faune”;

Albert Roussel, “L’accueil des muses” [incorrectly “du muse” in CD documentation];

Florent Schmitt, “Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda,” later incl. in Mirages for piano, Op. 70, subsequently transcribed for orchestra;

Igor Stravinsky, Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent, “à la mémoire de C.A. Debussy”;

Gian Francesco Malipiero, “A Claudio Debussy” [listed as “Hommage” in CD documentation];

Eugene Goosens, “Hommage à Debussy, Molto moderato, con espressione”;

Manuel de Falla, “Homenaje,” originally for guitar, but later transcribed by the composer for piano;

Béla Bartók, Sostenuto, rubato; became “à la mémoire de Claude Debussy,” No. 7 of [8] Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20;

Eric Satie, “Que me font ces vallons…” [incorrectly printed as “ses vallon in CD documentation] for soprano and piano, text from “L’isolement” by Alphonse de Lamartine (became “Élegie,” No. 1 of [4] Petites mélodies; “Idyll,” No. 1 of Avant-dernières pensées is substituted here; &

Maurice Ravel, Duo pour Violon et Violoncelle (became 1st movement of the Sonata for Violin and Violoncello); “Jeux d’eau” is substituted here.

The French tradition of the “tombeau,” music incorporating or imitating the music of the deceased dedicatee, dates from the Renaissance and was particularly popular in Baroque harpsichord music, but faded away after the 17th century until it was revived at the beginning of the 20th, most notably by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin of 1917, which is, in fact, a variation on the traditional form because it was intended to evoke French Baroque music in general, and each of its movements is dedicated to a friend of the composer killed in WW I, not to a composer. Most of the works in this collection follow the tradition more closely, using themes by Debussy or evoking/imitating his harmonics and style.

Readers might be surprised to learn that Debussy, who became a virulent nationalist and anti-German during WW I – he attempted to enlist in the army, but was rejected because of his age and his health – actually owned a German piano, rather than an Érard or a Pleyel, for the last 13 years of his life and composed all of his solo piano works (including the 24 Préludes) during that time on it and with its sound in mind. He apparently first encountered a Blüthner when on vacation on the isle of Jersey in 1904. (The firm was founded in 1853, the same year as the Steinway and Bechstein firms. From their inception, all three firms made pianos with cast iron frames, a design invented by Jonas Chickering of Boston in 1843.) He bought his 1904 model in 1905; it is a model similar to the 1907 instrument in the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA, used in this recording. Blüthner still makes pianos in Leipzig; in 2007, I wrote a piece about them and some of the recordings they produce and sell, but some of the contact info in it is no longer valid. I have since purchased a Blüthner recording of Schubert’s Sonatas D. 664 and D. 960 on a modern (2005?) Blüthner by Viennese pianist Florian Krumpöck (Blüthner and Bösendorfer have their artists just as Steinway does.) that has a simply amazing sound.

While some of the individual pieces from this “tombeau‘” collection have been recorded, usually in collections of works by their composer (e.g., Dukas’ is included in Olivier Chauzu’s fine intégrale de l’oeuvre pour piano by that composer on the Calliope label – where he takes 1:20 longer to play it, stretching it to nearly 5 mins!), and the original version for guitar of Falla’s has been recorded by many guitarists and is available in several You-Tube videos (including one by a guitarist whom I happen to know and have heard play it, although not in that performance), I am aware of only one other recording (which I own) of the complete set, on the Albany label, that actually uses the original versions of the non-piano works, but does not use a period piano. Thus, in exchange for what it gains in authenticity in adherence to the published score(s), it loses the authentic and marvelous sonority of this piano. Of course, these works were not composed for or on Debussy’s Blüthner; however, the goal of many of their composers was to evoke Debussy’s sound world. Randall Love, who is based in Durham, NC, is also a more sensitive pianist for this music than its interpreter, competent though he is.

Of the six works by Debussy that Love chose to fill out the CD, only the Images, Book II, were actually composed on his Blüthner. The other three pieces, which were published individually and not as a set, pre-date Debussy’s acquisition of the instrument, although not his initial encounter with the make. Australian pianist and Debussy scholar Roy Howat maintains they were intended, albeit with the first two in order inverse to that played here, to be a second Suite bergamasque, but were issued individually as the result of periodical publishers’ demands for scores from Debussy before the set was complete. The booklet’s notes do not discuss this.

It is a pleasure to hear all of these works performed on this instrument whose warm tone, deep resonance, especially in the bass register, and atmospheric and sonorous ring suit them perfectly. Love plays them masterfully, and shows off the instrument’s potential gloriously. He obtains liquid and bell-like sounds, and waves of sound when needed, producing a result unlike anything obtainable on the ubiquitous American-concert-hall Steinway, and far more appropriate to the music. There’s room for at least 15 minutes more of music on the disk and I’d have enjoyed hearing Love fill it with more Debussy or Ravel!

The tri-fold booklet’s cover features a color photo of an unidentified statue of a faun; the back reproduces the track listings of the outside of the tray card. The inside contains good succinct program notes by Elizabeth and Joe Kahn about the original publication, each individual work, and the Debussy pieces, and notes about the piano used and the similar one Debussy owned. There is also a brief bio of Love, but no photos of the piano.