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La Mer
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) [24:26]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) [11:16]*
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a (1945) [17:13]
Pierre MERCURE (1927-1966)
Kaléidoscope (1948) [10:35]
Marie-Andrée Benny (flute)*, Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. 27-28 March 2007, Eglise Saint-Nom-de-Jesus, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Experience Classicsonline

The most exciting thing about this album, and the thing that makes it worth hearing, is Pierre Mercure's Kaléidoscope. Mercure was one of the leading Québécois composers of his generation when he died tragically in a car accident a month short of his 39th birthday. He wrote Kaléidoscope in 1948 while he was studying with Claude Champagne, a year before he left Canada to study with Nadia Boulanger and Darius Milhaud in France.
The booklet notes, which on the whole focus on biography rather than the music, make the point that Champagne shared Ravel’s philosophy that a student should “take a model and imitate it … If you have something to say, your personality will never appear better than through your unconscious failures to copy your model”. While Kaléidoscope is still a student work, you can hear Mercure’s musical personality. The models are audible – Debussy’s orchestral palette, echoes of La Mer, the inflections of Les Six and Honegger in particular, flashes of jazz rhythms and a pounding motif from the world of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – but they have been synthesised into a distinct idiom. The music moves restlessly to its joyful conclusion and keeps your attention from its opening chords to its dying whisper.
The Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal and Yannick Nézet-Séguin deserve praise for their advocacy. They play this music with firm rhythmic drive, clear textures and careful balancing of parts. At times, though, I found myself wondering what a more red-blooded approach would bring out of this score. Perhaps Naxos will give us some Mercure with David Lloyd-Jones or James Judd at the helm?
While Mercure’s score is the main draw, it is Debussy's La Mer that gives this album its title. Nézet-Séguin's conception of Debussy's score is clean and clear. He has obviously rehearsed each movement carefully with his orchestra, and coaxes some gorgeous sounds from its players. The details of the score are laid bare by careful balancing of part, tempi that allow for clean articulation and ATMA's excellent recorded sound. Still, this is very much a water colour painting in pastel shades. The vivid hues one gets from conductors as diverse as Karajan and Munch are toned down considerably. After listening to the performance several times I remain impressed by the execution, but feel cheated of atmosphere. The end of the first movement is a case in point. The horn calls of proud midday hold so much promise, but the orchestra fails to deliver a glowing noon sun. Similarly, the third movement hangs fire and the battle of wind and sea at its close is underpowered. Nézet-Séguin's gentle approach works best in the middle movement, where the play of the waves has a vivid sparkle.
The first three of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes are similarly impressive. Nézet-Séguin shapes the opening Dawn with sensitivity, drawing a beautiful gossamer sonority from his orchestra. The horns are magical here, and they also create chords of glorious shimmer at the opening of Sunday Morning, which bobs and pecks with perkily pointed rhythms. Still, I miss the underlying energy that Previn and the LSO bring to this interlude in particular and the Four Sea Interludes as a whole. Moonlight is understated – even at its climax – but the balancing of parts is quite beautiful. The concluding Storm, however, produces only drizzle, with underpowered orchestral playing and some ugly sounds from the violins above the stave.
The real disappointment on this disc is the closing track, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. There is nothing especially wrong with the playing of the orchestra in general or flautist Marie-Andrée Benny in particular. Nézet-Séguin seems to be aiming for languor, but for all the beauty of the orchestral playing there is little tension to the music making here. Some listeners may warm to this slow and relatively objective account, but I miss the eroticism that Stokowski (EMI “Classical Archive” DVD 4928429), Munch and others find in this score. It also has nothing to do with the sea on an album entitled La Mer. Then again, nor does the Mercure, and I would not complain about Kaléidoscope. It remains this disc's primary attraction.
Tim Perry



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