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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) (I. De l’aube à midi sur la mer [8'43]; II. Jeux de vagues [6'55]; III. Dialogue du vent et de la mer [8'19])
Images pour orchestre (1905-1912) (I Gigues [7'20]; II. Iberia: (Par les rues et par les chemins [6'40]; Les Parfums de la nuit [7'45]; Le Matin d’un jour de fête [4'35]); III. Rondes de printemps [7'52])
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Emmanuel Krivine
rec. Luxembourg Philharmonie, February 2009
TIMPANI 1C1165 [58:26] 
Experience Classicsonline

The French CD label Timpani has made a reputation for itself in recent years producing a sequence of well recorded and performed discs of less familiar French music. I particularly enjoyed their discs of Lili Boulanger (1C1148) and Albéric Magnard (1C1171) which featured the same orchestra as here – the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg - albeit with a different conductor. This orchestra seems to be the evolution of the old Grand orchestre symphonique de RTL which collectors will remember from their days as a stalwart of the Vox/Turnabout label mainly conducted by Louis de Froment. It has to said that many of those recordings “creaked” in every sense so it is a pleasure to be able to report on the fine quality of both their performance and the recording here. 

It is the first time that I have heard a Timpani disc tackling repertoire that is so central. Debussy’s La Mer has been used as an orchestral showpiece by orchestras and conductors in the century since it was written. The current catalogue boasts a dizzying choice with every famous conductor and orchestra of the last 50 years represented in well regarded performances. So does Emmanuel Krivine and his Luxembourg orchestra add to the sum of our existing knowledge? Ultimately, I would have to say no. This is a beautifully recorded disc, the percussion in particular has been caught with superb fidelity – listen to the exquisitely graduated cymbal strokes at the end of the 2nd movement Jeux de vagues for example. Krivine splits his violins left and right which effectively emphasises many of Debussy’s antiphonal effects. The engineering very successfully delineates the many melodic lines in Debussy’s terrifyingly complex score but ultimately it does sound a fraction synthetic – you would never expect to hear the 2nd harp part with quite the clarity achieved here in concert for example. The main shortcoming is ultimately interpretative. I find Krivine prone to a degree of caution and a tendency to romanticise the score. Debussy created a soulless sea quite deliberately. This is not an element imbued with a spirit or a narrative as in Bax’s Garden of Fand let alone being a human response to the sea as in Vaughan-Williams’ A Sea Symphony (which was being written at exactly the same time). Hence the “mood” of Debussy’s sea can change in an instant. The great challenge for any conductor is to convey these myriad moods convincingly whilst still binding the work together as a coherent symphonic whole. Krivine undersells this by reducing the elemental wildness of the sea and more crucially telegraphing many of the meticulously marked tempo changes within the score. For example in the 3rd movement Dialogue du vent et de la mer at rehearsal number 46 (track 3 1:36) Debussy introduces a beautiful second subject in the double reeds over nervously insistent lower strings. This should be played at a slower tempo than the movement’s opening (as Krivine does) but Debussy marks very carefully that the following 16 bars should be a continuous forward movement of the tempo to regain the initial speed by rehearsal number 47 (2:09). Krivine puts in considerable rubati including a big pull back into the tenth bar of this phrase before moving on again. This is beautifully executed by the oboe but it plays merry hell with the underlying pulse in the string triplets and the onward rush (this is an impending storm at sea don’t forget) is further hampered by a second big phrase end into 47. Quite the reverse of Debussy’s intention I am sure. I’m dwelling on this moment only as one of many where Krivine’s interventionist approach impedes the flow of the music. He is particularly prone to preparing for a slowing up marked in the score by slowing into the slowing up. This double-whammy damages the musical flow dreadfully. For a recent excellent account of this remarkable score try the relatively recent BIS Seascapes disc from Lan Shui and his excellent Singapore Symphony Orchestra (BIS 1447) – a compelling interpretation but one that has fidelity to the score at its heart. 

Krivine’s coupling of the three separate pieces that compose the orchestral Images. This makes for more imaginative programming than the usual Nocturnes for sure. Again the orchestra plays beautifully and are well recorded. The opening movement is the strangely evocative Gigues which was originally titles Gigues tristes. It is a curious work quoting from the song Dansons la gigue as well as the traditional Keel Row. There is certainly a “grey dancer in the twilight” quality to it – mysterious and elusive. The Luxembourg performance is rich in detail but perhaps lacking the last degree of atmosphere – more muscle than mystery. The central panel of this triptych is the three movement Iberia. Full of atmosphere of course this work is more picture postcard than the other works on the disc. The first movement – Par les rues et par les chemins – evokes the same Spain as Chabrier’s España and Krivine’s no-nonsense muscular approach pays dividends. Aided again by his players and engineers the extraordinary detail of Debussy’s scoring is clear to hear. The many dynamic adjustments register to great effect as do the unusual instrumental combinations – a duet for oboe and viola springs to mind. The second movement – Les parfums de la nuit ­– suffers from a degree of literalness in the playing – for once I would have preferred more ebb and flow, also with many of the dynamics marked as being very quiet much is simply too loud (but then how exactly do you play a passage marked very quiet – pp – but at the same time “expressif e pénétrant”!). Krivine adds some portamenti (slides) in the string parts which are not in my edition of the score which do not feel quite right but I cannot swear are not authentic. Listen to track 6 2:42 – Krivine interprets Debussy’s tenuto line as an instruction to slide. This tenuto means lean on that note not join it to the next. He does the same around 3:50 which gives the music an overly romanticised style totally at odds with Debussy’s ethos. A great starting point for any interpreter of any piece is; if in doubt believe the score and trust the composer! Again, Krivine’s predilection for adding unmarked rallentandi means that the potentially seamless transition into the final movement – Le Matin d’un jour de fête – clunks like a learner driver’s gear-change. Debussy does all the work for you – the quaver (16th note) pulse of the second movement becomes exactly the crochet (8th note) pulse of the third. But crucially you must follow this absolutely. The rest of this movement proceeds well with one last textual curiosity – Debussy clearly marks the last chord sec which literally means dry and in musical terms means any resonance is cut off. Krivine allows the pizzicato chord to reverberate into silence over several seconds – a tribute to the engineer’s art and the acoustical warmth of the recording venue – but it is clearly not what Debussy wrote so why make such a point of it? The disc concludes with the last of the Images – Rondes de Printemps. Again Debussy makes use of existing songs – in this case "Nous n'irons plus au bois" and "Do, do l'enfant do". The score is headed by a quotation “Long Live May, welcome May with its wild gonfalon [heraldic banner]”. To my mind this does imply a certain impetuous passion at work. Krivine sets a good tempo but whenever a slowing is marked and followed by a return to this “tempo 1” he allows it to sag. The net effect is one of a slackening of the musical tension. The final pages do achieve an energy lacking earlier but I would not characterise it as wild. No matter how well the orchestra negotiate the complex passages the bigger picture of the music’s overall impact is lost. Ultimately this issue characterises the whole disc which for all its many undoubted virtues can be deemed a partial musical success at best. 

A somewhat personalised take on four of Debussy’s greatest orchestral works. 

Nick Barnard 




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