Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volumes I and II (CD review)

Jean Martinon, Orchestre National de l'ORTF.  EMI 0946 3 65235 and 0946 3 6524040 (packaged in a pair of two-disc sets).

I mean, who else would want to hear playing Debussy? Jean Martinon was always the best in the business in French repertoire, and with a French orchestra on EMI, these 1973-74 recordings are about as good as it gets.

What's more, the older we become, the more things become a bargain. The two volumes EMI have issued include two discs each, cover almost all of Debussy's orchestral output (several of them piano pieces orchestrated by others), together contain almost five hours of music, and come at a very low price. As I say, a bargain.

Things begin with the more familiar material, La Mer, Three Nocturnes, and Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune on disc one, along with Berceuse heroique and Musiques pour Le Roi Lear. While La Mer is undoubtedly good, it is the Nocturnes and Prelude that overshadow the others. Martinon's light, airy touch and splendidly sweet, atmospheric manner are perfect for these works. Then, disc two carries on the show with a lovely Jeux, a colorful Images, and an enjoyable Printemps.

On Volume II, the first disc contains suites, Children's Corner, Petite Suite, and Dances sacree et profane, along with La Boite a joujoux. Of these pieces, the Petite Suite could not be better, a gorgeous little light-as-air wisp of a work. The final CD contains lesser-known compositions, several of them highlighting individual instruments. The Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra is actually a small concerto, and although it was an early piece and Debussy didn't care for it, it comes off as a charming reminder of things to come. The standout, though, is the Premiere rapsodie for orchestra with principal clarinet, which I had never heard before and found absolutely delightful. Rounding the final disc are the Rapsodie for Orchestra with saxophone solo, Le plus que lente, Khamma, and Danse.

EMI's sound from French sources in the 1970s always struck me as a bit bright, forward, and thin. They seemed to lack the deep bass and warm midrange of their English cousins. So it is with these recordings, remastered by EMI France in 1998. However, although I don't think they are in the same top echelon as EMI's English recordings of the time, they do sound good, and they have an especially nice sense of depth in the orchestral field.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa