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Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
An Orchestral Extravaganza
La Mer [23:24]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. Recorded 1939. From MMV DB3923-3925
Images: No. 1. Gigues [6:26]; No. 3
Rondes de Printemps [7:27]
San Francisco Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Recorded 1942. From HMV DB6182-6183
Printemps – Symphonic suite [14:53]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded 1946. From HMV DB6549-6550
Nocturnes: Nuages [7:49]; Fêtes [6:26]; Sirènes [11:23]
L’Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris/Jean Fournet
Recorded 1952. From Philips A 00.160L
MP3 Format download



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 warmly.

John Quinn



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