BIS are really on
a roll with their latest batch of hybrid discs, notably the
excellent Tchaikovsky/Medtner piano concertos with Yevgeny Sudbin
and the São Paulo Orchestra under John Neschling [see Christopher
Technically superb, that recording crackles with extraordinary
creative energy, so much so that one hears these well-worn works
which takes its cue from the first movement of The Sea
by Frank Bridge, also marries a less-well-known band and star
soloist (Sharon Bezaly) with some familiar repertoire (the Zhou
Long excepted). It’s a formula that has worked before but does
it yield results this time round?
Mer is probably the best known 20th-century ‘water
music’ and its wash of colours and shifting harmonies is a real
challenge to musicians and engineers alike. On the strength
of this disc the Singapore Symphony are certainly up to it.
Formed in 1979, the SSO is regarded as one of Asia’s finest
ensembles and has toured the Far East, Europe and America. Under
their music director, Chinese-born Lan Shui, they are certainly
making waves of their own.
The mysterious ripple
and shimmer that opens De l'aube à midi sur la mer has
rarely sounded so evocative. Compared with Bernard Haitink’s
much-praised recording (Philips Duo 438 742-2) one could argue
that this southern seascape is a much brighter, bluer one than
that of Debussy’s imagination. The marvellous instrumental perspectives
and textures on the BIS disc, with delectable playing from all
quarters, gives the music a jewel-like sparkle that one rarely
finds in more northerly accounts of the work.
Straight A/B comparisons
between the CD and two-channel SACD layers are instructive;
as good as the CD sound undoubtedly is, the high-resolution
layer is markedly superior, with a smooth, airy sound that is
remarkably three-dimensional. Where Haitink and the Concertgebouw
achieve a homogeneous (dare one say more conventional) sound,
Lan Shui and the more individual SSO build to a wonderful blaze
of light as the sun reaches its height. A nice sense of scale,
though, just when one might be tempted to pull out all the stops.
In Jeux de vagues
the lap and swirl of the waves is an excellent example of
what has been called Debussy’s gift of ‘musical onomatopoeia’.
Shui secures some precise yet characterful playing from the
SSO, never forcing the pace and allowing the music to expand
naturally in the climaxes. And what a sensuous, ear-pricking
close to this movement, as it fades to inky silence.
Debussy crowns this
glorious piece with Dialogue du vent et de la mer, marked
animé et tumultueux. And animated and tumultuous it certainly
is, from the agitated introduction to the final peroration.
Haitink seems a little po-faced in this movement but Shui finds
real excitement, with the steady tread of the timps adding to
the momentum. But it is the harps at 4’ 57” that offer up some
of the most beguiling sounds I’ve heard in ages. Indeed, I’ve
rarely heard the instrument so beautifully recorded and integrated
into the musical texture. Even in the closing bars Shui refuses
to overplay his hand, with a crisp, perfectly judged finale.
A most satisfying performance all round.
Zhou Long’s The Deep, Deep Sea takes
as its inspiration The Hard Road, by Chinese poet Li
Bai (701-762 A.D.). Although it is supposed to evoke a difficult
sea voyage the piece (dedicated to Sharon Bezaly) seems equally
to suggest a world beneath the waves. Perhaps we can swap the
ship’s porthole for that of a bathysphere as the music glides
downwards into the deepening gloom, the harp and flute swaying
anemones of sound.
It is all very evocative,
cinematic even, but that is not in the least disparaging. It’s
certainly well crafted and it’s one of the most sensuous pieces
on this disc. The notes highlight Freud’s phrase ‘oceanic feeling’
and The Deep, Deep Sea really seems
to tap into our shared consciousness with its strangely mesmeric,
yet calming, progressions. I found myself listening to it several
times in a row, just to savour its seductive sound world.
Sea takes us to the surface once more. The first movement,
Seascape, which opens with a long-held chord of E major,
is vaguely reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. It’s certainly more
symphonic than anything we’ve heard so far and brings to mind
the Four Sea Interludes, by his pupil Benjamin Britten,
especially at the close of Seascape and in the staccato
writing of Sea-foam.
The remaining movements
– Moonlight (Adagio ma non troppo) and Storm (Allegro
energico) – may be painted with a broad brush but they brim
with lovely instrumental touches (just listen to the close of
Moonlight). Predictably enough Shui unleashes quite a
storm, with rasping brass and a series of cymbal-capped ‘waves’
dashing against the shore. Perhaps in other hands the elements
might rage more fiercely but it’s pretty awesome nonetheless.
The Bridge is a
hard act to follow so it’s not surprising if Glazunov’s voyage
seems a little less perilous by comparison. He admits his La
Mer was composed ‘under the strong influence of [Wagner]’
and I suppose one can discern something of Der Fliegende
Holländer in its more tumultuous moments. That said,
it strikes me as distinctly Russianate, with echoes of Tchaikovsky
in the harp melody at 2’ 37 that launches a delectable flowing
passage for full orchestra. Glazunov certainly cranks up the
decibels when required yet the traveller arrives at his destination
in a mood of quiet optimism.
This well-filled disc
is a real cracker. The programme is well chosen and once again
it seems BIS have pulled off a sonic and artistic coup. It’s the
first time I’ve heard Lan Shui and the SSO, who have already recorded
several discs for BIS. Intriguingly, one of them (with the Kroumata
Percussion Ensemble) pairs pieces called the Garbage Concerto
and Rock Symphony. That’s bound to be a challenge, but
on the evidence of Seascapes alone I’d be keen to hear
more of them in future.