WATERTOWN — You can’t accuse the Boston Chamber Music Society of skimping on context. Its summer series, marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, opened on Saturday with a concert matching the composer with works by his teachers, setting the historical stage for Debussy’s iconoclastic innovations. But the introductory material left little room for the man of the hour — at least in his fully formed guise — to register.
The fashion of Debussy’s formative years was French Romanticism, elegantly sumptuous music sometimes saturated with more polish than adventure. A pair of “Romances sans paroles” by Ernest Guiraud, a New Orleans-born musical factotum who taught the headstrong Debussy at the Paris Conservatoire, epitomized the era: lyrical melodies, understated harmonies, unusual ideas sparingly deployed. The result was an effective showpiece, especially for cellist Julie Albers, playing with rich tone and refined precision; pianist Jon Klibonoff kept his parts light, buffed to classicized smoothness.
A trio of piano works gave a précis of the mature Debussy: the harmonically unsettled waves of “Reflets dans l’eau” (from “Images”), the pentatonic wander of the Prelude “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” the Spanish-tinged picture-painting of another Prelude, “La sérénade interrompue.” Klibonoff played them with clarity and a bit of an edge. It was the clearest glimpse of the more familiar Debussyian manner.
The Piano Trio, conversely, dating from Debussy’s late teens, demonstrated the quality of his education but only intermittently shook off its Romantic influences. The Andante’s opening cello-piano duet could pass for another of Guiraud’s salon pieces, while the Finale, with its fraught, repeated-note accompaniment, channeled a bit of Tchaikovsky. (Debussy was, at the time, employed by Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s longtime patron.) Near the end of the finale, the ensemble began to rock between two parallel harmonies — violinist Sheryl Staples in double-stops, Albers playing harp-like pizzicato, Klibonoff with bell-like chords — a hint of the future. But the finish was a conventionally stormy coda.
The second half was given over to another of Debussy’s teachers, César Franck, and his colossal A major Violin Sonata. Staples and Klibonoff gave it its full-blooded due; minor quibbles — the rubato at times all pull and no push, Klibonoff’s tone getting brassy — were subsumed into an estimable performance. But it was a lot of thick tapestry for a program celebrating a composer known for iridescent silk. In the end, one began to share Debussy’s impatience with the style.