Within the context of the Festtage 2018, Daniel Barenboim always makes sure to present some out of the ordinary programming. It being the 100th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s death this year, he chose Le Martyre de saint-Sébastien, a five-act mystery play with a libretto by Gabriele d’Annunzio, preceded by the Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre with Martha Argerich as soloist.

Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich © Thomas Bartilla
Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich
© Thomas Bartilla

This was a new piece for Argerich and it suits her temperament – virtuoso scales, rolling out a tapestry of shimmering sound. The Fantaisie is as close as Debussy ever came to writing a concerto. Although less than 30 minutes long, it has three movements that flow seamlessly together, alternating Andante, Allegro, Lento e molto espressivo with an Allegro molto at the end. It is especially in this last movement that Barenboim indulged in the grand orchestral sound and tended to drown out Argerich. Although this Fantaisie is a composition from a young composer (1890), it already shows Debussy's distinctive language – sophisticated and expressive melodic colours, vague and mellifluous themes taking full advantage of the entire range of piano playing – which Argerich will surely investigate and invest in even more deeply if she makes it part of her repertoire.

The original version of Le Martyre de saint-Sébastien is over five hours long but only includes one hour of music. It is clearly the work by the musically sure-footed and mature Debussy. Gabriele d’Annunzio had received a commission for this work and the premiere date had already been set – May 22, 1911, coincidentally Richard Wagner’s birthday – when he approached Debussy in February 1911 asking him to compose incidental music (two other composers had turned down this challenge). At the time, d’Annunzio was involved with the dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein and she was to be the protagonist of this Gesamtkunstwerk – stage play, ballet and oratorio with a large chorus, narrator and three vocal soloists.

No one would think of staging the full-length mystery play nowadays, so the Staatsoper’s version is a shortened 90-minute version sanctioned by Debussy himself, in an edition by Pierre Boulez and Eiko Kasaba. It tells the story of the 3rd-century Roman soldier, Sebastian, who converted to Christianity and was killed for his beliefs. It is the same St Sebastian who has been the subject of many paintings, always shown as a very handsome young man, almost welcoming the many arrows that pierce his body, each one a testimony to his Christian faith.

Debussy was always considered to be a bit outside the establishment – he was not connected to an academic institution and assiduously cultivated his artistic freedom. By 1911, he had developed his unique musical style, which ranges from diatonic structures to very peculiar dissonant-free-tonal figurations. In Le Martyre all these elements come together in a lush, dramatic work. Debussy was greatly influenced by Wagner’s Parsifal (he heard it in Bayreuth), but also Bach’s mathematical philosophy finds its way into this music. Debussy’s musical language always seeks harmony, even though there is an impressive fanfare for the brass at the beginning of the Act 3 and the large mixed chorus, excellently prepared by Martin Wright, had some sacral, deeply melancholy music to sing, building up to an ecstatic and soaring Hallelujah involving everyone in the finale. 

At this performance, which took place at the Philharmonie, with its excellent acoustics, the Staatskapelle Berlin had no problem coming up with the sheer numbers of musicians required by the score, three harps, the more than 50 mixed chorus, plus the three singers and narrator. For this role, Maria Furtwängler, a prominent German TV actress better known for her roles as a police chief inspector, spoke the French text with excellent diction but cool detachment. The vocal soloists provided truly angelic singing. Soprano Anna Prohaska – placed in the upper reaches of the vast spaces of the Philharmonie – sang Vox Coelestis, a heartfelt lament for a dead child accompanied by infinitely tender strings and deep flutes. Mezzos Marianne Crebassa and Anna Lapovskaja harmonised perfectly in their roles as celestial twins, Crebassa singing her Vierge Érigone with melancholy elegance. Barenboim revelled in the sadness that pervades this music, in drawing the arches between the polyphonic and chromatic concepts that punctuate Debussy’s composition.

As a visitor to the entire Festtage cycle, one cannot help but wonder if these “festive days” would not sound even better, be even more nuanced if they were not so tightly crammed in such a short period of time, what with rehearsals and performances – a new production of Falstaff, a revival of Parsifal, this concert – one can only be full of admiration for the stamina of the 75-year-old maestro.