The three sonatas that Debussy produced in his final years, together with the two books of piano Études composed immediately before them, hint at the new direction his music might have taken had he not died, aged 56, in 1918. The sonatas – for cello, flute, viola and harp (both composed in 1915), and for violin (1917) – were all that he lived to complete of a planned set of six such works. The fourth sonata was to have been for oboe, horn and harpsichord, and the fifth for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano. The final work would have involved all the instruments used in the preceding sonatas, with the addition of a double bass.
Debussy insisted on calling himself “musicien français” on the published scores of these works. That was not only a patriotic gesture at a time when France’s existence was under threat from the horrifying war raging on its soil, but also signalled the source of the style of these enigmatic pieces – the elegance and clarity of French baroque composers such as Couperin and Rameau. It flagged up, too, that Debussy’s modernism was distinct from that of his Austro-German contemporaries, and that these works and their successors would put even more stylistic distance between him and Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
But if Debussy’s fond backward glances were a kind of neoclassicism, the results are less blatant than Stravinsky’s later dive into the baroque. The outlines in Debussy’s sonatas may be crisper, the textures leaner than in his earlier works, but the world of these three sonatas is still typically elusive and suggestive, and like no other composer’s. And yet there’s nothing precious about these wonderfully responsive, all-French performances of the sonatas, in which pianist Bertrand Chamayou is very much the common denominator. He’s joined by Edgar Moreau in the Cello Sonata and Renaud Capuçon in the violin work, while the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, one of Debussy’s greatest achievements, is played by Emmanuel Pahud, Gérard Caussé and Marie-Pierre Langlamet.
Some might prefer these sonatas in slightly less fulsome performances, but the sense of authority that runs through the whole disc is hard to resist. It also includes Syrinx, the jewel-like miniature for solo flute from 1913, which Pahud plays with willowy fluency, as well as a rarity from the beginning of Debussy’s career, the Piano Trio of 1880, composed while he was working for the Russian patron Nadezhda von Meck. It’s typical French chamber music of the mid 19th century, indebted to Massenet, Franck and early Fauré, with few hints of what would come later, but Capuçon, Moreau and Chamayou play it very winningly. (Andrew Clements / The Guardian)