This download album from Pristine Audio usefully brings together
some fine archive recordings of orchestral music by Debussy.
The transfers are new and very good. All were made by Andrew
Rose with the exception of the Nocturnes; the handiwork
of Peter Harrison.
The performances are, for the most
part, well known and as such they call for little detailed comment.
The reading of La Mer by Koussevitzky is a celebrated
one, which conveys a splendid sweep and sense of movement. It’s
a tremendously atmospheric account, though the conductor never
sacrifices the overall shape of the music for the sake of ambience
or detail. Despite the fact that the recording is now over sixty
years old an amazing amount of orchestral detail is reported.
This is as much a tribute to the skill of the original HMV engineers
as to the excellence of the transfer. I compared this version
with one made just over ten years ago by Mark Obert-Thorn (Pearl
GEMM CD 9090) and on my equipment I could detect little difference.
Both are first rate. About the only point where both transfers
fall down slightly is at the very end of the work where the
original recording is somewhat overloaded in the face of the
BSO playing at full tilt. And what playing! Throughout this
performance we are reminded time and again what a virtuoso but
sensitive ensemble the Bostonians were under Koussevitzky. There
have been many splendid recordings of La Mer since this
one and other conductors have taken a different, but equally
valid, view of the work. Make no mistake, however, this is a
classic account and if you haven’t heard it before this excellent
transfer reveals it in as much splendour as is possible.
The Monteux performance of two of
the Images isn’t quite in the same league. For one thing
the San Francisco orchestra wasn’t as accomplished a band at
that time as their Bostonian rivals. For another, the recording
isn’t as kind to them; the sound produced, again by HMV engineers,
is much closer. Indeed it’s somewhat brash, and there’s much
less bass resonance compared with what we encountered in La
Mer. That said, there’s much to admire in Monteux’s reading
of the music; after all this was the sort of repertoire in which
he was very much at home. I don’t know if the third panel of
the triptych, Iberia, was recorded at the same time -
I believe Monteux made a complete recording of the work in San
Francisco in 1951 - but what we have here is sympathetically
and idiomatically interpreted.
Monteux led the San Francisco orchestra
from 1936 to 1952 so he’d been in charge for a while when this
recording was made. Right at the start of Gigues there’s
some pretty dubious wind intonation, which suggests that he
still had work to do to bring the orchestra up to top class
standard. However, the playing is always committed and the performance
as a whole gives much pleasure. I suspect that in the hall on
the day the ensemble was more fastidiously balanced than the
recorded sound suggests. Monteux’s account of Gigues
has great vitality and he displays real feeling for Rondes
de Printemps. All in all, this recording is a valuable document
as an example of the conductor’s work in San Francisco and as
evidence of his credentials as an interpreter of Debussy.
The Beecham performance of Printemps
is full of interest, not least because it was one of the very
first recordings made by the newly formed Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra. The orchestra’s first concert was given on 15 September
1946 and its first venture into the recording studios took place
just a few weeks later, on 3 October. The present recording
was begun on 25 November 1946 but wasn’t completed until April
of the following year. I derived this information from the documentation
accompanying a Dutton CD (CDLX 7027) which includes this Debussy
recording. Comparing the Dutton and Pristine transfers I found
that both were very good though the Pristine version seemed
to me to be a bit brighter at the top. Some listeners may find
Dutton’s transfer a bit more mellow and prefer it. In my view
both do full justice to this very fine recorded account.
At the very start Beecham distils
the atmosphere beautifully and that’s a harbinger of what is
to follow. His whole reading is full of sensitivity and detail
but perhaps one should not be surprised that a master Delian
was able to achieve such results in Debussy. One just regrets
that Beecham didn’t record much more of the French master’s
music. The playing of the “infant” RPO is superb. I know that
in forming the orchestra Beecham had deliberately assembled
some of London’s finest musicians but even so the standard of
ensemble and of solo work is remarkably high when one considers
that the orchestra was at this time not quite three months old.
This is a superb performance in excellent sound.
Finally Jean Fournet directs Nocturnes.
It seems to me that this performance, the only one in the
collection by French forces and so doubly welcome, perhaps lacks
a degree of tonal refinement but I’m a bit wary of making a
definitive judgment on the basis of a recording more than fifty
years old, though the sound has come up extremely well. Generally
the playing is good and there are some lovely passages of string
playing. The opening of Fêtes is joyous and later on
in the same piece, the distant processional is quite well handled
by the engineers though I thought the brass and wind phrasing
was a bit too smooth. The balancing of the female chorus in
the concluding Sirènes must be a nightmare, both in recordings
and in the concert hall. I don’t think the problems are solved
entirely satisfactorily. For my taste the ladies are rather
too “present”. That may have been a deliberate decision by Fournet
since his is quite a passionate account; these Sirens are seductive
but they’re dangerous too! Overall it’s a good performance of
the triptych, if not the best I’ve heard.
This, then, is a very valuable and stimulating collection
of Debussy performances. The recordings have been transferred
very well. I enjoyed the anthology greatly and recommend it