Essential Debussy: 26 of His Greatest Masterpieces (CD review)

Various artists. DG 289 472 505-2 (2-disc set).

By the turn of the twenty-first century, times were starting to get hard all over the music industry, and that included classical music, which saw an impact. Giants like Sony, Philips, and EMI were slowing down, the latter two companies soon to dissolve or be taken over by other companies; Decca and DG had fewer new releases each month; and Michael Tilson Thomas became so annoyed with RCA for not continuing his orchestra's contract, he and his San Francisco Symphony formed their own recording company. He and his orchestra were not alone. It seemed as though only Telarc and Naxos kept plugging along.

In any case, the bigger companies began also finding that there was more money in their back catalog than in re-recording the same repertoire with expensive orchestras, so for a time they started assembling more reissues than creating brand-new releases. Thank goodness for small favors because at least we began getting some of the best older material than ever in greater quantity and for lower prices. This 2002 release, Essential Debussy, from DG is a case in point. It contains twenty-six of the composer's most popular works from some of DG's biggest stars.

Herbert von Karajan
The highlight of the two-disc set is probably Herbert von Karajan's mid-Sixties' Berlin Philharmonic rendition of La Mer. It sounds splendidly resonant with atmosphere and color, all awash in Karajan's lushly extravagant orchestral style. Then, too, you'll find bits of Iberia with Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra, The Children's Corner suite with Charles Dutoit and his Montreal forces, sections of the Nocturnes from Claudio Abbado and the Boston Symphony, and so on, plus about a dozen piano pieces from people like Roge, Vasary, Michelangeli, Weissenberg, Arrau, Bolet, Kocsis, Richter, and others. There really isn't anything by Debussy you can think of off the top of your head that isn't here, at least in part.

The sound spans the years from 1958 to close to 2002, with the median age being around twenty-five to thirty years old. Some of it sounds a bit better than others, of course, but most of the material has a kind of bright quality that doesn't quite add up to luster or brilliance. It's more like a forward upper midrange with little deep bass or high treble, resulting in a sound that's easy to listen to but not particularly state-of-the-art. Still, you get value for your money here, and for the casual listener, especially, it makes a fine introduction to Debussy.


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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 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 simple-minded, 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, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa