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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer: trois esquisses symphoniques (1903-05) [24:51]
Claude DEBUSSY arranged for orchestra by Colin MATTHEWS (b. 1946)
Préludes (1910-1912, arrs, 2001-06):-
Brouillards (Book II No. 1) [4:03]
Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest (Book I, No. 7) [3:10]
Minstrels (Book I No 12) [2:39]
Canope (Book II No 10) [2:57]
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir
(Book I No 4) [3:53]
La Puerta del Vino (Book II No 3) [3:38]
Général Lavine – eccentric (Book II No. 6) [3:15]
Feuilles mortes (Book II No 2) [3:36]
Les tierces alternées (Book II No. 11) [3:12]
La danse de Puck (Book I No 11) [3:03]
Le vent dans la plaine (Book I No 3) [2:55]
La fille aux cheveux de lin (Book I No 8)*[5:00]
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
rec. 14–16 July 2006; *2 August 2006, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester. DDD
HALLÉ CD HLL 7513 [67:24]

 


This is the first own-label recording that I’ve heard from Mark Elder and the Hallé that has not been devoted to English music. I was most interested to hear if they’d be as successful in French music as they have been in the music of their own country.

This CD presents one of Debussy’s greatest masterpieces, La Mer, and a new ‘take’ on some of his finest piano pieces. The latter consists of “arrangements for orchestra” by Colin Matthews of twelve of the twenty-four piano Préludes published between 1910 and 1912. Note that these are not simply “orchestrations”: Matthews has gone further than that. In fact between 2001 and 2006 he has made orchestral arrangements of all twenty-four Préludes, all to a commission by the Hallé. Having heard these let me say at once that I hope recordings of the remainder will come along very soon. I wonder if it was a deliberate decision not to issue all twenty-four arrangements together but rather to issue half of them coupled with an acknowledged masterpiece, holding back the remainder for subsequent issue, perhaps coupled with a work such as the Nocturnes? If so, then I think that was a very wise decision, both commercially and artistically.

In his succinct but very good notes Gerald Larner tells us that, in order to make the pieces “work” in orchestral terms Matthews has not been afraid to alter the basic text, usually through the addition of a few bars here or a fragment of extra melody there. Thus, for example, a few bars have been added to Brouillards. Again, in the case of Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest, to quote Larner, “while the harmonies of the first five bars of the orchestral version …. are implied by Debussy’s introductory arpeggios, the material is actually Matthews’s own.” I have no doubt that some purists will object – but, then, they might well object to the idea of orchestration per se.

That, I’d suggest would be to miss the point. What Matthews gives us here is what I’d call a creative re-imagining of the pieces. He’s been faithful to the spirit of the music but has held it up for us to admire as if in a new light. Indeed, for me his work is somewhat akin to the difference that can be made to the viewer’s perception of a painting through skilful hanging and lighting. Put another way, he’s inviting us to view Debussy’s wonderful miniatures through a different perspective. I’d recommend to listeners that they cast aside preconceptions and listen to the music afresh. In that context it’s worth saying that when I got the CD for review I planned originally that at one listening session I’d listen to each Matthews arrangement followed by hearing the piano original. But after reading Gerald Larner’s comments and listening to the CD I decided this would be a fruitless exercise and, indeed, possibly inimical to Matthews’ work.

I’d say that Matthews has succeeded triumphantly in what he set out to do. Many of the sound-worlds that he conjures are magical. Larner draws attention to the “creative invention” of some added material in the shape of horn-calls during Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest. I’d definitely cast this as a happy inspiration. The same piece features some brilliant, swirling orchestration elsewhere. One touch that definitely caught my ear occurs in Canope, though it doesn’t involve any new material. A couple of times a series of chords appears, first heard right at the start. Imaginatively, Matthews translates these into cool, pastel chords on the woodwind. The effect is memorable and evokes aural memories, as Larner justly observes, of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Orchestral colouring definitely adds to the sultry ambience of the habañera in La Puerta del Vino and the “chilly sonorities” of Feuilles mortes is brilliantly translated onto an orchestral canvass. There’s gossamer-light filigree scoring to savour in La danse de Puck in which the little horn-calls are a perfect, Puckish touch. The most radical departure from Debussy’s text comes in Le vent dans la plaine, which, Larner explains, “is discreetly extended by a development [section] absent from the original” that makes the piece almost half as long again.

The one thing that’s not explained in the notes is the playing order and whether this is random or not – it will be noted that the selection offered here presents pieces from each of Debussy’s two books and the order is mixed. I suspect that the sequence may not be random, if only because the last two pieces on the disc, Le vent dans la plaine and La fille aux cheveux de lin are meant by Matthews to be played without a break. His version of La fille aux cheveux de lin may well be controversial for he directs that it should be given at about half the speed of the piano original. The scoring is for strings and harp only and it’s played, for the most part, very quietly. As heard here the piece becomes a tender reverie. The effect is truly beautiful but for once I did wonder if Matthews’ solution was as faithful to the spirit of Debussy as he has been elsewhere for here we lose the sense of the charmingly hesitant, innocent young girl imagined by Debussy. However, the playing of Elder’s Hallé is so ravishing that criticism is disarmed.

From the unfamiliar we turn to the very familiar in the shape of La Mer. Sir John Barbirolli has cast a long, beneficent shadow over the Hallé and in my judgement Mark Elder is the first of Barbirolli’s successors who has successfully matched the excellence of ‘Glorious John’ in some of that conductor’s favourite repertoire, especially in the recording studio. First it was Elgar and now Elder tackles, in La Mer, another piece that was a Barbirolli favourite – indeed, the work, together with Elgar’s First Symphony was on the programme of the concert in Bradford at which I saw Sir John conduct for the very last time not long before his death.

Elder conducts a magnificent performance. In fact, his is one of the most satisfying recorded accounts I’ve heard in a long time. Aided by some fabulous playing he illuminates Debussy’s score in all its myriad detail while also revealing marvellously the Big Picture. Right from the start, the hushed, pregnant atmosphere that Elder and his players generate at the beginning of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ is a harbinger of a fine performance. The fluent playing later on in this piece is brilliantly suggestive of scudding light waves, eddies and hidden currents. Elder’s rhythmic control is impressive yet elastic and he maintains the forward momentum splendidly.

The start of ‘Jeux de vagues’ is playful. The whole piece is conducted and played with a marvellous clarity so that all the detail on Debussy’s canvass registers though never does the listener feel that a detail has been highlighted artificially. I love the way, in particular, that Elder touches in tiny flickers of orchestral colour both in this piece and throughout the whole score. Gerald Larner observes that this movement “seems to proceed on spontaneous impulse” and this performance certainly sounds spontaneous. The winding down to nothingness at the very end is achieved superbly.

‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ is very vivid but never exaggerated. Elder handles the ebbs and flows of Debussy’s scoring in a masterly fashion and the playing of his orchestra alternates finesse and refinement on the one hand and splendid power on the other. Elder controls the build up of tension extremely well so that when climaxes are unleashed they make their full effect. The last couple of minutes are tremendously exciting.

So Elder and the Hallé offer us a superb account of an established masterpiece and they couple it with an intriguing and, in my opinion, highly successful novelty. I hope the Matthews arrangements won’t remain a “novelty” for very long, though. I trust that other conductors will take them up so that they circulate more widely for they offer an illuminating and discriminating alternative view of these wonderful miniatures. In their way, these arrangements are every bit as subtle and imaginative as Debussy’s original conceptions and that’s the best compliment I can pay, I think.

Both Debussy and Colin Matthews are handsomely served by superlative, ultra-responsive playing from the Hallé. This orchestra’s partnership with Mark Elder is proving to be extraordinarily fruitful and I haven’t heard better playing from them. It helps that the performances are captured in splendidly vivid and truthful sound. This release is an out-and-out winner. Now may we please have the remainder of Colin Matthews’ arrangements of the Préludes?

John Quinn

NOTE

Since this review originally appeared Colin Matthews has kindly pointed out to me that the ordering of the Préludes on this CD is indeed deliberate and it was never his intention that Debussy's original ordering should necessarily be followed. However, in case conductors wish to revert to the original order in future performances Mr Matthews has also provided alternative endings for Le vent dans la plaine and La fille aux cheveux de lin so that they can be played separately rather than in conjoined form, as on this disc.

It's excellent news that Colin Matthews's arrangements of the other twelve Préludes will be recorded shortly for future release and I look forward to that disc with keen anticipation. JQ




 


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