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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa