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:

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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