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
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
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
‘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.
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
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