Veronika Harcsa, Anastasia Razvalyaeva, Márton Fenyvesi: Debussy NOW!

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Jazz often appropriates and refreshes tunes not specifically written for it – Moonlight In Vermont, Body And Soul, Speak Low – and lays claim to being their new owner. When jazz interprets “classical” music it always seems to be trespassing in pursuit of amusement or deadpan seriousness. No jazz singers are about to include Debussy’s Le Son Du Cor S’Afflige Vers Les Bois in their repertory despite what Hungarian vocalist Veronika Harcsa and her two colleagues make of it here.

That the accompanying press release describes this and the other Debussy items on her album as chansons (they are de facto mélodies, or art songs) doesn’t inspire confidence any more than its assertion that Debussy would have “in all likelihood” welcomed being “brought up to the minute”. Hmm. By his lapels, possibly.

But, with a caveat entered at the conclusion of this review, it’s impossible not to warm to Harcsa and her colleagues Razvalyaeva and Fenyvesi, on harp and guitar/electronics respectively. In this case, it’s about taking liberties, albeit a dodgy procedure with Debussy, whose atmosphère vague was located in watchmaker precision and thus wholly apparent if no less convincing, as any pianist will attest.

Le Son Du Cor is the second of the Trois Mélodies Sur Des Poèmes De Paul Verlaine of 1891, all of which are included but not together. That’s a good idea, as each song can be essayed as a self-contained chart and not part of an inter-related suite. The same procedure is adopted for Trois Chansons De Bilitis (also mélodies, despite the nomenclature), not to be confused with the 12 items for verbaliser (récitant), harp and celeste of the Chansons De Bilitis.

Extension is often Harcsa’s ploy. At just over two minutes in the original, Fleur Des Blés is worked up with subtle overdubbing and heightened dynamic to over five minutes, a lease justified by Andre Girod’s words, in which the sexual-floral playfulness is always given a frisson when the song’s sung by a woman. So too La Flûte De Pan, the second of the Bilitis trio, twice as long as my recorded original by Veronique Gens and Roger Vignoles, and given orchestral depth and latitude of vocal line by Harcsa without any sense that she’s overstaying her welcome. La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin, originally a piano composition, is similarly taken on a journey with vocalese and electronic invention but has at its core a straight transposition of the original for harp.

My only reservations have nothing to do with this trio’s skill, taste, and attention to detail. It’s just that Debussy’s music sets up possibilities of thought and feeling which, when hunted down, drawn and coloured as they are on this album, if in ghostly fashion, seems to rob listeners of their own sense of adventure. And while it’s obvious from the declamatory style that Harcsa is a jazz singer, this album is not an attempt to make Debussy a composer whose work can be “jazzed”. That he did things with harmony that influenced a lot of jazz musicians is incidental. But I’m still giving the album what it deserves.

Discography
Beau Soir; Fleur Des Blés; La Mer Est Plus Belle; La Flûte De Pan; Le Son Du Cor S’Afflige Vers Les Bois; Nuit D’Étoiles; La Chevelure; L’Échelonnement Des Haies; Le Tombeau Des Naïades; Regret; La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin (53.00)
Veronika Harcsa (v); Anastasia Razvalyaeva (hp); Márton Fenyvesi (g, elec). Budapest, 28-29 May 2020.
Budapest Music Centre Records BMCCD299