Monday, 7 October 2013

Sir Henry Wood: Orchestration of Debussy’ ‘La cathédrale engloutie’

Pierre-Jean Chaffrey 
I recently posted about Harriet Cohen’s fine recording of Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ from the Suite Bergamasque and ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ from Book 1 of the ‘Preludes’. As part of my exploration preparing that post I came across Sir Henry Wood’s orchestration of the latter. I knew that he had made many transcriptions of music for orchestra, however I had not realised Debussy was amongst them.
‘La cathédrale engloutie’, in its original piano version, was first heard in London on 2 June 1910 (maybe a follow up post is required here). With the composer’s blessing it was orchestrated by the Frenchman Henri Büsser (1872-1973) in 1917. However, this arrangement was not heard in the United Kingdom until 1927. In 1930 Leopold Stokowski made his well-known orchestration of this ‘prelude’.
Henry Wood, then, wrote the ‘pioneering transcription’ of this work. It was produced for the 1919 season of Promenade Concerts and was duly heard on 6 September 1919.  It is assumed by Lewis Foreman in his liner notes for the Lyrita (SRCD216) recording of this arrangement that it was ‘a memorial piece for Debussy who had died in 1918.’  The work was not heard again at a Proms concert until 26 July 2012.

I am in two minds about this arrangement. On the one hand I believe that Sir Henry makes a bold effort with this music. He manages to create diverse moods of ‘profoundly calm (in a gentle sonorous mist)’ with which the piece opens, the monastic chanting and the surging of the waves. He makes use of two harps, gong, tubular bells and pedal notes on the organ to create just the ‘right’ atmosphere. His realisation of the two climaxes is remarkable for their power and imposing structure. It is certainly a warhorse that is guaranteed to get the ‘Prom-ers’ applauding.
Yet, on the other hand, as the composer Christopher Gunning has pointed out in his ‘blog’ (27/7/12) there is a ‘special skill’ in orchestrating Debussy’s piano music. He suggests that Sir Henry did not successfully translate the ‘exquisite pianistic colours and extensive use of the sustaining pedal’. He is correct: it does not quite come across. I agree with him that it is ‘over-orchestrated.’ The mystic feel of the original piano piece is missing. However, I do not quite go as far as Gunning who suggests that this orchestration is ‘pretty awful’ and ‘almost laughable.’
The London Evening Standard was equally condemnatory of the 2012 Proms performance: the reviewer writes that “La Cathédrale Engloutie’ had the misfortune to fall into the hands of Henry Wood, who decked it out in technicolour garb. Quite how the fastidious Debussy would have reacted to this lurid concoction will never be known, as only the year before he had gone to the great cathedral in the sky.’ It is a fair point.
However, the Daily Telegraph music critic seemed more amenable to this arrangement: he quietly suggests that is ‘another small discovery, and also a nod towards Prom history’. Yet as this comment was written before the 2012 performance, I do wonder if the reviewer had actually heard the piece.
The most glowing comment on ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ is from MusicWeb International’s Rob Barnett, who writes that ‘it is good to hear Wood, the magician of instrumentation, handling this piece with kid gloves and magically intensifying the impressionistic textures.’ For me this is taking the praise a little too far.

I suggest listening to both the piano version played by François-Joël Thiollier  (skip the advert after 2 secs)  and Sir Henry Wood’s transcription back to back and see what you think? 

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