Debussy: La Mer (HQCD review)

Also, Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2; Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust, Part 2: Ballet des Sylphes. Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD.

Leopold Stokowski's Decca recording of Debussy's La Mer with the London Symphony is not the most graceful or poetic interpretation on record. For that, you'll want Martinon (EMI). But Stokowski is close. Stokowski's recording is not the most exciting, either. For that, you'll want Reiner (RCA or HDTT). But Stokowski is close. Stokowski's recording is not the most lush or glamorous you'll find. For that, you'll want Karajan (DG). But Stokowski is close. Stokowski's recording is not the most precise or analytical around. For that, you'll want Boulez (DG). But Stokowski is close. And Stokowski's recording is not the best recorded in the catalogue. For that, you'll want Previn (EMI). But Stokowski is close. In fact, Stokowski's Decca recording is so close in all of the above categories, it qualifies in my mind as the best overall choice in this work of anything available, and HDTT's remaster of it on the HQCD I reviewed makes it even better. It's a hard proposition to refuse.

French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote La Mer between 1903 and 1905, and the work has since become one of his most well-known compositions. Certainly, it is one of his greatest and most descriptive pieces. Debussy named it La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre (or "The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra"), but usually people just call it La Mer.

Debussy said he wanted 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. In this first movement, Stokowski provides a requisite enthusiasm, but he is careful not let this opening music upstage the climactic final movement. So, he reins it in a bit, producing a suggestive, atmospheric, picturesque, and wonderfully rhapsodic portrait of morning on the sea.

The composer intended 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. In reality, the second movement acts as a kind of slowish scherzo, although, to be fair, it isn't actually slow or fast. As its subtitle indicates, it's more playful than anything, with Stokowski delighting in the imaginative nuances of sea and air. This is Stokowski at his more charming: light and lyrical.

Leopold Stokowski
Then comes probably the most well-known segment of the work, the third-movement finale, "Dialogue between wind and waves," in which Debussy provided his biggest splashes of color and which he noted should sound animated and tumultuous. Here, Stokowski infuses the music with immense personality; but not necessarily his own--he infuses it with the composer's personality. The movement's rhythmic rises and falls appear perfectly timed, the cadences beautifully judged, the subtleties of wind and sea well expressed in contrasting dynamic shifts. The result is as pleasing, as relaxed, yet as intense as anything you'll find on record.

The accompanying items--Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2 and Hector Berlioz's Ballet des Sylphes--are equally appealing. Stokowski's Ravel, especially, sounds magical, rich, and luxuriant. It's the ideal complement to the Debussy. Still, it's the Debussy that steals the show and for which I strongly recommend the disc.

Producer Tony d'Amato and engineer Arthur Lilley recorded the music in June, 1970, at Kingsway Hall, London. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered and transferred it from a London Phase 4 four-track tape to a variety of formats (I reviewed the HQCD) in 2015.

It's the "Phase 4" business that may concern some audiophiles. According to Decca, "Phase 4 was a special series of recordings from the '60s and '70s which presented music in spectacularly vivid sound." And according to Wikipedia, the Decca sound of the time "was characterised by an aggressive use of the highest and lowest frequencies and a daring use of tape saturation and out-of-phase sound to convey a lively and impactful hall ambiance, plus considerable bar-to-bar rebalancing by the recording staff of orchestral voices, known as 'spotlighting.' In the 1960s and 1970s, the company developed its 'Phase 4' process, which produced even greater sonic impact through even more interventionist engineering techniques." The fact is, Phase 4 sound used multi-miking to the extreme, usually producing a close-up, compartmentalized sound field that dazzled some listeners with its lucidity and detail and infuriated others with its sometimes unnatural perspective. Love it or leave it, HDTT have transferred it to HQCD with their customary excellent results.

Using two separate CD players, I compared the HDTT disc to a London Phase 4 compact disc remastered by Decca in 1997. (If you want the Stokowski Debussy, you'll have to find a used copy of one of the several discs Decca or London issued; buy it in a big Decca box set of miscellaneous Stokowski material; or get this HDTT transfer. I recommend the HDTT.) Anyway, the listener need have no fears about the sound being too close or too analytical because it's not quite as drastic as some of Decca's Phase 4 releases. Here, the sound is reasonably realistic, at least from a near vantage point. More important, the HDTT product displays a touch more smoothness and clarity than my comparison disc. It's also quite clean (although both discs are, for that matter), with almost dead quiet backgrounds. As with many other Phase 4 recordings I've heard, the bass is not quite as deep as I'd like, but it's more than adequate and sounds taut and well controlled. Finally, I thought the HDTT transfer showed a hair more orchestral dimensionality and depth than the London CD. In other words, you will be happy with the HDTT remastering. It does credit to Stokowski's fine performance.

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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