Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone; Ravel: La Valse; Bolero. Kenneth Radnofsky, alto saxophone; Kurt Masur, New York Philharmonic. Warner Apex 2564 67717-4.

I don't know if Teldec ever released this 1996 Debussy recording by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic before, but Warner Classics have issued it on their own Apex label in 2011. Not that the world needs yet another recording of La Mer, and a mundane one at that, when we already have a thrilling account from Stokowski (Decca), an evocative one from Martinon (EMI), a sensuous one from Karajan (DG), a robust one from Reiner (RCA), an elegant one from Ansermet (Decca), and polished ones from Previn (EMI), Boulez (DG), Simon (Cala), Giulini (EMI), Haitink (Philips), and others. Nevertheless, I suppose dedicated collectors will want everything they can get their hands on, and Masur fans will want everything he's done. Or maybe buyers will it nice to have the two accompanying Debussy pieces and the two Ravel along with La Mer, at least making the disc a good value for its sheer quantity of material alone.  Fair enough.

The disc begins with two short works by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the first one his Prelude and Afternoon of a Faun. It's hard for music this voluptuous not to sound anything but good, and Masur does not disappoint, with the New York Phil providing a full, sweet, warm sound. However, Masur's account is also fairly straightforward, hardly raising any goose pimples for its inspired interpretation. Following the Prelude we get Debussy's Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone, a bit less well known than the other works on the disc and, thus, more welcome. The faintly blues-inflected mood of the saxophone blends nicely with Debussy's impressionistic style.

Next, it's on to the central work on the disc, Debussy's La Mer. Like the other readings, there is nothing especially distinguished about the performance, nor is there anything to get too annoyed by. Masur conducts the notes, and the orchestra plays them. Insofar as Masur capturing the temper of the sea, the feel of the salt air on our cheeks, the splash of the waves against the shore, the stormy drifts of wind and ocean tides, I felt little of it. The music-making seems too matter-of-fact for that. Although Masur's rendition picks up appropriate momentum in the third and final movement, let's just say there are far more exciting accounts available than this one.

The program concludes with two short, familiar pieces by Debussy's younger contemporary, French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): La Valse and Bolero. Masur again conducts them competently, yet neither performance inspires the utmost confidence or admiration.

Teldec recorded the first six tracks live in 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall, NY, and the seventh track live (Bolero) in 1993. The engineers obtain a moderately close and reasonably detailed sound with only a faint degree of audience noise in the background (occasional shuffling, coughing, and wheezing). There is not much depth to the orchestral stage, though, sacrificing it for a wide stereo spread. Midrange definition is fine, even if frequency extremes and dynamics can sometimes seem more than a tad limited. As a small consolation for the live recording, Teldec engineers edited out any applause that might have spoiled the mood.


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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