Lisa Relaford Coston Explores Debussy
An Affair of the Heart - Hers and Mine

Beginning with the November 24, 2008 Norfolk Chamber Consort concert, Lisa Relaford Coston has been singing songs by Claude Debussy with Andrey Kasparov at the piano. This and two other musical programs have prompted my musings.

In Debussy settings, French diction receives a respectful homage due its discreet and refined sonority and its musical halftones. Debussy continually refined his declamation to bring it more in line with the gentle melodic palpitations of a conversation or a confidence. These comments are paraphrased from Emile Vuillermoz on an LP booklet circa 1962. He continues: “On text Debussy wrote for his Proses Lyriques he displays an elegant affected language, a disquieting dandyism of what was then called ‘artistic writing.’ But the rhythms of Verlaine called him to a more musical, more flexible and more airy conception of our French language. [I offer C’est l’extase langoureuse as sung by Ms. Coston as an example.] He speedily discovered a light and mobile musical prosody which permitted him to translate with fidelity the delicate curve of our discreet speech.”

Ms.Coston’s fidelity in singing Debussy is astonishing and her recent accompanists have enhanced her achievement. Alfred Cortot accompanied Maggie Teyte (born Margaret Tate 1888, died 1976) on an LP I bought in 1968 in the “Angel Great Recordings of the Century” series. I lucked out. Ms. Teyte was taught by Debussy - both the songs and the role of Mélisande in his opera. Of Debussy, she says he was a most exacting teacher with an uncontrollable temper. She was present when his “temper got the better of him, much to the discomfort of several famous interpreters and accompanists.” She speaks of her personal experience: “Whether my temperament of the color of my voice had anything to do with it I do not know, but he never got angry with me or corrected me, through all the lessons of Pelleas and Mélisande and his repertoire of songs. I believe I am correct in saying that I am the only singer he has accompanied in public both with orchestra and at the piano.”

My listening ear was early trained by the circa 1936-1944 recordings by Ms. Teyte and now forty years later I am treated to live performances. Ms. Coston, like Ms. Teyte, has no operatic vibrato. French expression is cool. Emile Vuillermoz actually describes the graph of the rise and fall of the French voice and how speech is confined to a narrow line while “Italian and German declamation resembles the temperature curve of a fevered invalid.”

Cortot describes the Songs of Bilitis (Trois Chansons de Bilitis) as a disturbing return to the poetic feeling of ancient Greece whose sensual simplicity the poet Pierre Louÿs has so well reproduced. Cortot describes Ballade des femmes de Paris (text by François Villon) as lively and malicious and I would add not often sung because of the challenge it offers the singer. For the listener it is a truffle desert comparing all European women on their gift of gab, awarding the prize to the women of Paris.

In the October 25 program “Andrey and Friends” at Freemason Street Baptist Church, Ms. Coston sang Chevaux de bois (text - Paul Verlaine). In the piano you hear the spinning rhythm of the carousel. Her voice captures the intoxication of the motion that creates nausea and dizziness while you are having such fun. The gentle ending as the carousel slows reaches deep within my feelings. I’m almost sad, not quite believing in the fleeting moment of happiness. Actually, so many of Debussy’s tiny stories told in song capture brief moments in time, fleeting gestures that cut deeply into the soul - a sad joy, perhaps.

My sincere wish is that this will be a continuing traverse by Lisa Relaford Coston of the neglected Debussy oeuvre. In Debussy I find a longing for perfection that human life never quite fulfills and he offers it with such beauty and honesty.

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