A spectre haunted the first weekend of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Debussy Festival: the spectre of Richard Wagner. Debussy’s relationship with Wagner began with infatuation, and ended (as so often) in open rebellion. The young decadent who declared Parsifal ‘one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music’ later ranted that ‘30 million Boches cannot destroy French thought’ even while, tormented by cancer, he laboured to complete three late sonatas of near-infinite subtlety and grace. But there’s always the sense, as Debussy put it as early as 1890, that ‘I don’t see what can be done beyond Tristan’.
So there it was: Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod, sprawled full-stretch across the end of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla’s opening orchestral concert. Coming out of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Grazinyte-Tyla approached it coolly. When the cellos began their long unwinding song she held back, even beyond the moment when the violins sweep upwards and most conductors let fly. Only as she approached the huge, ominous full stop towards the end of the Prelude did she let the orchestra rear up to its full, awful height, and with excited gestures she propelled the Liebestod forward on the same wave of ecstasy. Debussy was right; there’s no answer to this music. Michael Tanner, who should know, has called Tristan und Isolde the defeat of criticism.
Still, who could argue that it was an intruder at Debussy’s feast? Crammed into just two weekends, with six orchestral concerts plus a city-wide flurry of chamber recitals, talks and YouTube-ready PR stunts (a piano duet on the Wednesbury to Birmingham tram; which, believe me, takes more than merely artistic courage), the Festival was concentrated enough to generate a sense of occasion (‘See you tomorrow morning!’ yelled Grazinyte-Tyla from the podium). Crucially, it made no attempt at completism, and other composers got a look-in: Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Boulez and Tristan Murail (who took a bow, beaming, in a crumpled suit) all featured during the first weekend. Messiaen, Ravel and Britten appeared in the second.
That actually worked to Debussy’s advantage. It wasn’t just a matter of spotting early influences or isolating Debussyian trace elements in his successors either — though it was fun to pick out the active ingredients (Massenet plus a generous glug of Lohengrin) in his student cantata La Damoiselle élue, and delightful to hear the authentically Gallic, citron pressé tone with which the CBSO’s Youth Chorus cut through all that syrup. More surprising was how dense Boulez’s Dérive 1 sounded after the transparency of the previous night’s Nocturnes, while the spectral rustlings and shrillings of two nature-inspired works by Murail felt naively literal, despite pristine playing from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Interestingly, the sheer stylistic busyness of Murail’s 1969-vintage Couleur de mer came closest to meeting Debussy on his own terms.
Which were? Well, having established Wagner as the immovable Other, the sonic diversity and quicksilver fluidness of Debussy’s orchestral works felt more than ever like a genuine attempt to slip around him and out into the unknown. Grazinyte-Tyla conducted two different versions of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune on successive evenings. A 1920s Viennese transcription for chamber ensemble resembled a perfumed idyll, with a harmonium wrapping everything in a soft haze. On the full orchestra, it became a new world. Marie-Christine Zupancic phrased her opening flute solo as a question, rather than a sigh, and Grazinyte-Tyla clarified the textures throughout, relishing the sudden, savage bite of a horn and the off-key chime of the antique cymbals.
It was unsettling. So was the machine-music aggression that Grazinyte-Tyla found in the central ‘Fêtes’ from Nocturnes, and the accelerating, out-of-control death waltz that the CBSO’s associate conductor Michael Seal generated out of the sly wit and simmering sexuality of the 1913 tennis ballet Jeux. If you buy the idea that artists before 1914 somehow detected the coming apocalypse, here was your proof that the supposedly escapist Debussy was every bit as attuned to the modern condition as his noisier contemporaries. How that squares (or doesn’t) with the caressing tenderness of so much of Debussy’s music — the grey velvet that he could conjure like no one else from the low strings; or the smiling melancholy of his toyshop fantasy La boîte à joujoux (Jonathan Bloxham conducted, with loving care) — feels to me like the heart of the matter.
Because if Debussy saw no escape from Wagner’s starry abyss, he at least tempered despair with compassion. At his most expansive, like the rapturous triptych-within-a-triptych Images (played with primary-coloured immediacy by Grazinyte-Tyla and the CBSO Youth Orchestra), he continually enlarges the possibilities of what music can express. On the final day BCMG presented Le Tombeau de Debussy, a collection of short memorial works written in 1920, coupled with world premières of newly commissioned tributes by living composers — a sort of double exit poll, then and now, on Debussy’s posthumous influence. Once again, he came out ahead of the field. Of the older composers only Ravel and Bartok, and of the newcomers only Julian Anderson and Frédéric Pattar — whose tiny half-whispered song cycle (…de qui parlez vous?), woven from skeins of silver and black sound, was performed with breathtaking finesse by cellist Ulrich Heinen and soprano Ruby Hughes — left any real sense of being part of Debussy’s expanding musical universe.
George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon was abandoned after a member of the orchestra passed out, but La Mer closed the festival and after a fraught opening — understandable in the circumstances — Grazinyte-Tyla piloted it to a climax of shining ferocity. It sounded, in fact, rather as Debussy once described Parsifal, ‘incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong’. Dead at 55, Debussy was lost to modernism before he could play an active role in shaping its course, leaving us to a century of factions, theories and music about music. At the end of these two weekends, 100 years to the day since he died in Paris, Claude Debussy sounded more than ever like the last truly radical master to create the real thing.