Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, Images. Emmanuel Krivine, Orchestre national de France. Erato 0190295687045.

The last time I heard a recording from French conductor Emmanuel Krivine, it was Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Denon, a performance I found beautifully lyrical and engaging. But that was over a quarter century ago. Although Maestro Krivine has continued with a distinguished career in the concert hall and recording studio, he hasn't quite been front and center in the general public's eye. Nevertheless, he currently holds the position of Music Director of the Orchestre National de France, with which he recorded the current Erato disc of Debussy's La Mer and Images. It was good to reacquaint myself with him.

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 pieces. 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. He made it clear that even though the movements have descriptive titles, he didn't consider the work program music. As an impressionist, Debussy was conjuring up just that--musical impressions, in this case of the sea.

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, Krivine takes the composer at his word, and it is quite gentle until opening up to the big melodies. In this regard, it reminded me of Jean Martinon's rendering of the work, sweet and lyrical.

Emmanuel Krivine
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 else, and again Krivine does well by it. His approach is perhaps not so frothy or enchanting as Martinon's, Previn's, or Reiner's readings, but it is charming nonetheless.

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. It is only here that Krivine is possibly a little too lightweight, choosing to caress the waves rather than picturing them as particularly turbulent. Krivine's is a legitimately poetic realization of the score, which will please some listeners and maybe not others. (If you're looking for ultimate power, try Stokowski's reading with the LSO on Decca or, especially, HDTT.)

Accompanying La Mer is Debussy's Images pour orchestre, which he wrote between 1905-1912, originally designing it as a two-piano sequel to his Images for Solo Piano. As he did in La Mer, Debussy divided the work into three sections, three movements, each inspired by a country or a song.

In the first section, "Gigues," Debussy used his recollections of England as his inspiration for the music. Krivine does a fine job conveying both the light and serious moods of the music, with an effective varying of contrasts, tempos, dynamics, and the like.

In the second, longest, and probably most-familiar section, "Iberia," Debussy used his memories of Spain as inspiration. He further divided this section into three more parts: "Par les rues et par les chemins" ("Through the streets and the paths"); "Les parfums de la nuit" ("The fragrance of the night"); and "Le matin d'un jour de fĂȘte" ("The morning of a festival day"). Here, Krivine is in his element, with pleasantly flowing rhythms. Although his account of things is perhaps not as lively as Argenta's performance or as well recorded as Haitink's, it does capture much of the music's color and joy.

In the closing section, "Rondes de printemps ("Round dances of spring"), Debussy relied for inspiration on a pair of songs. Krivine does a splendid job with this section, finishing up the piece by tying it to, if anything, La Mer, with its frolicsome play of tunes, phrases, and tonalities. I'm sure Krivine didn't emphasize these similarities by accident, and it provides an appropriate way to end the program.

Finally, as a bonus track, we get an excerpt from Debussy's original 1905 version of the third movement of La Mer, which contains a brief fanfare in bars 237-144 that the composer later decided was inappropriate and cut.

Producer Daniel Zalay and engineers Maiwenn Legehan and Philippe Thibaut recorded the music at the Auditorium Radio France in March 2017. The sound they obtained is clear and natural, with a fairly good orchestral perspective, depth and width, slightly warm yet fairly transparent. There is nothing spectacular about it; it's not as up-close as Stokowski's recording or quite as detailed as Previn's. It is realistic and engaging, with a decent frequency response (again, not heavy on the bass or treble) and a moderate dynamic range and impact.


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

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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 more than 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, 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.

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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