Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Images; Children's Corner; Printemps; Nocturnes; Jeux.  Karajan, Giulini, Previn, Martinon, Plasson; Berlin Philharmonic, Philharmonia, LSO, O. Nat'l de l'ORTF, O. du Capitole de Toulouse. EMI 50999 9 07216 2 5 (2-disc set).

A short while ago I reviewed EMI's two-disc collections of Essential Ballet and Ballet Adagios, both sets drawn from the company's extensive back catalogue of recordings. Now, they have issued a two-disc set of works by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Again, we get some of the finest recordings of his music ever made, all of it in quite good sound. And unlike the ballet sets, which provided only bits and pieces of longer works, the selections on this Debussy set are more-or-less complete, mainly because the works are so brief to start with. In any case, with seventy-three minutes on the first disc and seventy-eight on the second, it's a bargain collection at mid price.

Disc one begins with Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (1894), with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. To be fair, Debussy preferred to think of his music as symbolic rather than impressionistic; whatever the case, there is hardly any finer an interpretation of Prelude anywhere than Karajan's, unless it's his own earlier DG recording with the same orchestra. He was always good at glamorizing and romanticizing the music he conducted, and the approach works perfectly in this Debussy piece, more languorous, erotic, exotic, and atmospheric than almost any other performance.

Next up is La Mer (1904), with Carlo Maria Giulini leading the Philharmonia Orchestra. The reading is very lush and highly evocative, the conductor providing a genuine feeling for the sea, with some serious salt spray practically splashing across our face. The music sounds beautifully realized in all three movements. It's unfortunate that there is occasionally a small degree of shrillness in the sound, which may deter one's ultimate appreciation for the piece. Still, it's only a minor distraction.

The first disc concludes with Debussy's Images for Orchestra (1908-1912), the pieces he wrote after composing two sets of Images for piano. Debussy finds Andre Previn and the London Symphony at the top of their game, and they benefit from some of the finest sound in the collection. Anyway, you'll find these brief Spanish pictures moving, exciting, and effectively done.

Disc two opens with Children's Corner (1908), piano pieces orchestrated by Andre Caplet, and performed by Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de l'ORTF. Debussy meant the music to evoke reminiscences and pictures of childhood, with titles like "Jimbo's lullaby," "The Snow is Dancing," and Golliwogg's Cakewalk." As Martinon is my favorite conductor in French music, this series of selections can't miss.

Next is Printemps (1882), with Michel Plasson and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.  It's an early work by Debussy, strongly resembling the Prelude, and it is quite lovely, with Plasson emphasizing its beauty and serenity. Trois Nocturnes (1900) come next, again with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia. Here, we get three musical impressions of paintings by James McNeill Whistler, each with its own play of contrasting light and shadow. Giulini's interpretation is aptly translucent. Then, the album ends with Martinon and the Orchestre National de l'ORTF doing Jeux (1912), Debussy's final orchestral work, a short ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev. Needless to say, Martinon handles it exquisitely.

Recorded by EMI between 1962 and 1988, the sound of the various items displays a remarkable uniformity. Most of it is smooth, dynamic, and reasonably transparent. There is a small degree of heaviness about the Karajan contribution and in a few of the other numbers a slight veiled or muted quality at the high end, plus a bit of harshness. I suspect this comes with age and with the audio engineers attempting to use just the right amount of filtering and noise reduction to make everything acceptable to modern ears. When the sound is good, it's excellent, admirably clear, with good bass response; when it's not, it's hardly an issue.

JJP

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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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa