Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, Liszt: Mephisto Waltz. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.

There are some conductors who, when you've heard a performance by them, you wonder how anybody could possibly do it better, it's so good. Such is the case with Fritz Reiner, who took over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953 and did some of his best work there, producing early stereo recordings for RCA that hold up as classics to this day. And such is the case with Reiner's interpretation of La Mer, a rendition that crackles with energy, atmosphere, and color. To have a new remastering of it by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is a blessing, indeed.

La Mer, which French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote between 1903 and 1905, remains among Debussy's best and most famous compositions, and surely one of his most descriptive. Debussy meant it, of course, as a musical representation of the sea, and Reiner and his Chicago players do a splendid job of just with it.

The composer intended the first movement, "From dawn till noon on the sea," to be a little less showy than the other movements and added that the conductor should take it slowly and animate it little by little. It begins with a warmly atmospheric introduction and then opens up about halfway through to a rapturous melody. Reiner takes the composer at his word, pacing the movement as slowly at first as any conductor I've heard. His timing for the first movement is a tick over ten minutes, the longest running time of any of the half dozen recordings I had on hand for comparison: Stokowski (Decca), Karajan (DG and EMI), Martinon (EMI), Haitink (Philips), Previn (EMI), and Simon (Cala). Yet Reiner's direction never sounds dull, slack, or laggardly. In fact, it sounds just right, building in intensity as it goes along and creating precisely the atmospheric opening I'm sure Debussy had in mind.

Debussy wanted the second movement, "Play of the waves," to sound light and carefree, the dancing waters luminescent and magical. He indicated it should be an allegro (a brisk, lively tempo), animated with a versatile rhythm. Here, Reiner invests the music with the playfulness the music requires, the glimmering waves and foam quite palpable. This is music one does not just hear but feel. Yet Reiner never lets the spirit of the music lose its natural beauty, and we wind up admiring it both for its lively spirit and pleasing aesthetics.

Then comes probably the most well-known segment of the piece, the third-movement finale, "Dialogue between wind and waves," which provides the biggest splashes of color. Debussy noted it should sound animated and tumultuous. In this final segment, Reiner is again as exciting as anyone. His rendition pulsates with strength and vitality.

Fritz Reiner
The coupling, Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1, the first and most popular of four such waltzes the composer wrote. It's another example of programmatic music, telling the story of Mephistopheles (the devil) playing the fiddle at a wedding feast and enticing Faust into a wild dance with a village beauty. Clearly, Liszt wanted the music to sound sensual, seductive, and demonic. It's that demonic quality that Reiner seems to focus on, his interpretation possessed of fury and frenzy aplenty. The whole thing is a good deal of fun, actually.

The only minor shortcoming in the disc is that even with the coupling, the program is not very long, just over thirty-six minutes. Most other recordings of La Mer, including Reiner's on RCA, provide a lengthier second selection. But that's neither here nor there; the main thing is the Debussy piece, and you won't find it sounding any better on disc. So, with this HDTT release, it is quality over quantity to be sure.

Producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the Debussy in 1961 and the Liszt in 1958 at Symphony Hall, Chicago. HDTT transferred the music to disc from an RCA 4-track (Debussy) and 2-track (Liszt) tape. As usual with an old RCA "Living Stereo" recording from Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, the sound in both works is very wide; yet this time there is little indication of a hole-in-the-middle, which could sometimes afflict the "Living Stereo" sonics. Instead, we get an even distribution of sound across and beyond the speakers, with a strongly dynamic and impactful response. Nor do we hear the slightly bright forwardness that some "Living Stereo" records exhibit; the sound here comes up very well balanced and so smooth it appears almost too soft compared to RCA's own transfers. Perhaps the touch of noise reduction HDTT undoubtedly added helped to produce the softer-than-usual effect, losing a bit of sparkle in the process; but, whatever, the sound is still lifelike, very easy on the ears, and highly listenable.

For further information on HDTT discs, prices, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

No comments:

Post a Comment

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 more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa