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Debussy jeux ONYX4224
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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Bacchus et Ariane, Op 43: Act 2
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Fanfare to La Péri
La Péri
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Domingo Hindoyan
rec. 2022, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
ONYX 4224 [68]

Hindoyan very sensibly sets out his stall in repertoire that seems purposely designed to differentiate him from his illustrious predecessor at the helm of the RLPO. Much as I admire Petrenko, he doesn’t stand out in my memory as a purveyor of highly perfumed French music. It also happens that, on the evidence of this disc, Hindoyan is rather good at this sort of thing. Anyone accustomed to hearing them in Petrenko’s beloved Russians, might even be surprised as how de luxe they sound. The RLPO long ago left behind any notion that they are merely a good regional band and a recording like this provides further confirmation.

There are times, particularly in the L’après-midi, where the orchestra do lack a little in the kind of opulence we have grown accustomed to from recordings by top ensembles. Even here, as Xavier-Roth’s recent period version of Pelléas reminds us, the Parisian orchestras of the day didn’t much sound like Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra either. The overall impression is how idiomatic the RLPO sound under the young Venezuelan. Even the horns adopt a suitably French accent, most notably in the Dukas where they have that almost saxophone like timbre familiar from older recordings of French orchestras. What the RLPO might very occasionally lack in terms of girth – though the big climax of the Dukas is as ripe as a low hanging mango – they more than make up for in terms of finesse. The recording mirrors this: rich but leaning more towards detail.

Thematically, L’Après-Midi fits in with the mythological nature of the Roussel and the Dukas as well as the erotically charged atmosphere of all of the compositions included. It is much more familiar than any of those other pieces. I suspect it was included as a sweetener for those less well known works. I am always unsure whether such marketing tactics actually work and any new recording of this piece has to work very hard indeed to stand out. It is not that there is anything wrong with this performance. It is passionate and delicate in turns rather than oozing sensuality and if I had caught it in the concert hall I would have gone home well pleased. On record, I would have preferred something a bit more off the beaten track, more in keeping with the other works included.

Speaking of which, Hindoyan makes a most persuasive case for Dukas not being a one hit wonder. True, after a brassy fanfare, his tone poem La Péri does start in a way uncannily similar to the opening of his Sorcerer’s Apprentice but thereafter it is all highly perfumed exoticism. It is a wonderful score, wonderfully played, its unfamiliarity perplexing. Technically, a ballet – it is described as a poème dansé and was premiered as such – I think it works better as a purely orchestral work though there is no lack of dramatic incident. Mostly, Dukas is in love with original and rather ear ravishing textures – there is a shimmering passage on tremolo strings which gets the hairs rising on the back of the neck. It is a perfect piece for those wondering 'Where next?' after Debussy.

Oddly, the answer to that question might be – more Debussy given the relative neglect of his poème dansé, Jeux. Composed to an uninspiring scenario originally rejected by the composer and largely overshadowed by the furore that surrounded the Rite of Spring, Jeux has always been the odd one out of his major works. Stylistically, it is closer to the more abstract music making of the last three sonatas than the Nocturnes or La Mer. Listening to it, I tend to ignore Diaghilev’s rather fatuous plot and consider that the games Debussy had in mind were more overtly sexual than the coyness implied by the metaphor of a tennis match a trois that this music is meant to depict. It might be more appropriate to say that what Debussy is captivated with in this score is the sensual, perhaps even sexual, delights of music itself. Formally it is a tour de force, virtually dispensing with conventional musical structures in favour of a kind of organic evolution that invents its own logic. Like those last three sonatas, this can leave the listener with little to get to grips with at first listen. It almost seems to have too much music to paraphrase an Emperor’s advice to Mozart!

Lately, this elusive work has been very popular in the studio with results ranging from the highly convincing to the not terribly so. It requires a strong hand on the tiller if it is not to descend into a disjointed series of moments. Haitink, that most surprising and admirable of Debussy conductors, still remains the bench mark. Like Boulez, he treats it as pure music rather than attempting to evoke the plot for us. Hindoyan is more playful than either of those two older colleagues but he is very clear about the line of development of the piece and doesn’t fall into the trap of lingering too long over the magic moments. Or perhaps a better way of putting that might be that he lingers the right amount over them but not too much.

Roussel, on the other hand, is one of those composers who greatly benefits from removing any concept of ‘too much’. His ballet Bacchus et Ariane is not music from the top division it is true and needs the kind of persuasive care shown it by Hindoyan if it is to make its mark. Big sensuous melodies end up sounding noble and erotic frenzies wind up noisy kneesups. There is no point pretending otherwise and Hindoyan doesn’t. What we get instead is a lively, colourful score that makes up for a relative lack of originality with plenty of energy. Again I found myself thinking of how enjoyable this piece would be in the concert hall and the Onyx engineers brings us tantalisingly close to that experience. It is the kind of recording and performance that would have me renewing my season ticket at the Philharmonic if I lived in Liverpool.

If this disc is an accurate calling card for what is to come from Hindoyan, then it promises thrills aplenty. There is no pretending that any of the works included here pose any great cerebral challenges for the performers but there is time enough to see what the young Venezuelan is like in the Central European repertoire. In the meantime, he glitters and dazzles on this first outing with his new band.

David McDade

Published: October 5, 2022

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