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.
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.
For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: