Chinese-American conductor Lan Shui has been the conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra since 1997, and he has made any number of fine recordings with them, including this rerelease of Debussy's La Mer. On the current album, La Mer joins two other popular Debussy works, Images pour orchestre and Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Fine performances together with good sound make the disc a tempting proposition for any music lover.
The first thing on Shui's program is Images pour orchestre ("Images for Orchestra"), written between 1905 and 1912 by the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy disliked his being referred to an "impressionist" composer, although that is, in fact, how most people hear his music, with a good deal of symbolic sensory and emotional content. Debussy wrote Images in three parts and several sections: Gigues (dance movements based on the composer's memories of England); Iberia (in three sections: Par les rues et par les chemins or "In the streets and by-ways"; Les parfums de la nuit or "The fragrance of the night"; and Le matin d'un jour de fête or "The morning of the festival day"; and Rondes de printemps ("Round dances of spring").
For many years, two of my favorite recordings of Images for their performance, dynamic impact, stereo spread, and orchestral depth have been Ataulfo Argento's with the Suisse-Romande on Decca and Bernard Haitink's with the Concertgebouw on Philips. In comparison, I find this BIS recording with Shui almost as good. The sound is perhaps a touch milder and the interpretation a tad more leisurely, but it doesn't hurt the music at all. In fact, the whole performance is quite good, with Shui and his Singapore orchestra nicely capturing the music's shifting temperaments and colors. Yet Debussy never intended his scores to represent anything literal, so don't expect a conventional tone poem. It's all about suggestion and evocation, with atmosphere and feeling over absolute imagery. In this regard, Shui succeeds quite well, his reading filling out the rhythms and melodies with a gentle ease. It's a loving rendering of the piece, particularly in its quieter passages and hushed silences.
Next comes Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a faun"), which saw its first performance in 1894 and later became a short ballet in 1912. It's lush, plush, languorous, meditative, sensual music, which is how Shui plays it. Debussy himself described it as "a very free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature."
Shui takes the Prelude at a slower pace than most other conductors I've heard: slower than Karajan (DG or EMI), slower than Haitink (Philips), slower than Martinon (EMI), Simon (Cala), and the like. Nevertheless, Shui never lets the music drag, and despite the calm, tranquil nature of the score, Shui invests it with lovely, shimmering, sinuous beauty.
Under Shui the various seascapes come off with an appealing variety of moods. He chooses his tempos with care, neither too fast nor too slow; he judges the contrasts sensibly, never forcing any of the big climaxes down our throats but moving among them gracefully, as with the ebb and flow of the sea. Here, I've always found Debussy at his most impressionistic, giving us a subjective yet detailed picture of waves and winds and currents. Shui's rendition of it is a most-expressive evocation of Debussy's highly emotional music, the notes dancing on the water's flow. While Shui's interpretation doesn't exude the ultimate grace of Martinon's (EMI) or the sheer power of Stokowski's (Decca), the result of Shui's realization is both soothing and exciting.
Producers Jens Braun and Robert Suff and engineers Ingo Petry, Matthias Spitzbarth, and Thore Brinkman recorded the music at the Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, in August 2004 (La Mer), July 2009 (Images), and July 2013 (Prelude). BIS earlier released the recording of La Mer on the album Seascapes. The team made all three recordings for hybrid SACD playback, so with the right equipment you can listen in multichannel SACD or two-channel SACD from an SACD player or two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.
The sound presents a wide stereo field, with moderate depth and impact. It's a bit soft in the way of exacting definition, yet it appears quite lifelike, as though one were really in front of an orchestra listening to it in a concert hall. A light room resonance helps reinforce this effect, making the sonics easy on the ear and realistic at the same time. It's sort of a light, wispy sound, the kind that enhances Debussy's music. I can only imagine what a little more of the SACD's multichannel reinforcement would do for the sound's ambience; something good, I'm sure.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: