Debussy: La Mer (SACD review)

Also, Images pour orchestre; Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Lan Shui, Singapore Symphony Orchestra. BIS-1807.

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.

Lan Shui
Shui's concludes the program with La Mer. Written between 1903 and 1905, La Mer is among Debussy's most well-known compositions and certainly one of his greatest and most descriptive. He called it La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre (or "The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra"), but folks today usually just call it La Mer.

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:

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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 Jon 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 more than 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa