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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.
La mer.
Images – Ibéria.

Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in December 1976 (Prélude, La mer), December 1977 (Ibéria), May 1979 (Nocturne). [ADD]
PHILIPS 50 Great Recordings 464 697-2 [78.43]

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All of these recordings are classics of their time and were among the finest of their day. Their appeal has dimmed little in the intervening decades.

The Prélude á l'après-midi d'un faune is the ideal way to begin the disc. This is a truly sensuous, ravishing performance. The wind are consistently excellent and the ending is delicately perfumed. The close melds perfectly into the first Nocturne, ‘Nuages’ (‘Clouds’). The recording quality of the Nocturnes is, in particular, superb: the distancing of the final female chorus in the closing movement, ‘Sirènes’ is nigh on perfect, these particular sirens being shrouded in mystery. The middle, contrasting ‘Fêtes’ casts just a shadow of doubt as the trumpets appear decidedly more festive than the rest of the orchestra.

La mer, perhaps second only in popularity to the Prélude, is given a thought-provoking, stimulating performance which at all times sounds perfectly Debussian. The ‘Jeux de vagues’ (the second movement) is intriguing in that Haitink points out its prophetic side: in its elusive, elliptical language it is a clear close blood-relation to the late Jeux. The movement vapourises into nothing at the end, leaving the Dialogue du vent et de la mer to refute any suggestion that Haitink is always a dull conductor.

Perhaps he is not, however, suited to the Franco-Mediterranean exuberance of Ibéria. Admittedly, the accents of ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’ can sound a bit forced (this also goes for the solo trumpet at the end). The final two movements all but erase memories of this: ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ is exquisitely presented and features an outstanding, gentle oboe, while there is a beautiful feeling of coming into focus to the dance rhythms of ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’.

All in all, outstanding. Haitink’s Debussy is as unique as, in its different way, Karajan’s. At the price, this very well-filled and carefully programmed disc provides performances which can act as any collection’s Debussian reference points.


Colin Clarke

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