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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun [9:23]
Nocturnes [24:41]
La mer [24:29]
Berceuse héroïque [5:13]
May Festival Chorus
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
Recorded in Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio January 25-26 and February 22-23, 2004.
TELARC CD-80617 [64:15]

Paavo Järvi was appointed music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 2001 and since then has been hard at work developing this fine regional ensemble into an international musical force. From the sound of his spate of recent recordings for Telarc, he is succeeding handsomely, and this collection of Debussy favorites-plus-one handily demonstrates this conductor’s taste and refinement, as well as his ability to build a glowing and finely honed orchestral sound.

The works on this program need little introduction, as they are familiar to music lovers everywhere. And one might complain too that this is a disc of over-recorded if not over-performed warhorses. Yet, Maestro Järvi and his orchestra have turned in such an exceptionally fine, beautifully paced performance here that seasoned collectors will want to add it to their trove, and first-timers can feel perfectly comfortable in choosing this as their single representation.

Opening with the famous Prelude, after a poem of Mallarmé, this is the work that perhaps defines impressionism in music. Haunting and picturesque, Järvi shapes and balances this brief but intoxicating work to perfection. Opening with a flawlessly played solo from the principal flutist, the Cincinnati orchestra is superb with warm, silken strings to crystalline sounds from the winds. It is as though nine minutes of music passes in the span of a single breath so captivating is this performance.

The Nocturnes began life in 1892 as a new work to be performed on a projected tour of the United States. The project was laid aside when the tour came to naught. Later, the composer informed the famed violinist Eugène Ysaÿe that he was reworking his original material for a violin concerto. This work, like the first orchestral piece did not come to pass. Finally, Debussy reworked his material once again to form these three magnificent canvases of sound, the musical equivalent to the finest Monet or van Gogh.

Järvi has a definite knack for capturing mood and nuance in a subtle fashion. His readings of these three very diverse soundscapes are never overstated, elegant but not prissy, bold and sonorous without ever being overbearing. And once again, the orchestra rises to the challenge of Debussy’s colorful scores. Nuages is dreamy and relaxed without succumbing to being lugubrious. Fêtes is joyous and sprightly without ever losing its refinement and Sirènes with its haunting wordless chorus of women is simply ravishing, a perfect recreation of Debussy’s beloved seascape.

La Mer is perhaps Debussy’s greatest masterpiece amongst an output of impeccable creations. Afraid that the ocean itself would distract him, the composer took to the mountains in order to create his ‘impression’ of the sea, rather than a firsthand account of what he was seeing in the present. Again this is a performance that can be ranked amongst the finest efforts of Ansermet, Dutoit, Abbado and others who have made memorable recordings of it. What is most striking to these ears is the clarity with which this orchestra plays, and the restraint that is observed in the louder passages. Debussy most carefully orchestrated this work to reflect an abstract notion of the sea, and Järvi and his players never give away all the secrets. This is a truly first-rate interpretation.

The program closes with the little known and seldom heard Berceuse héroïque, written in tribute to the people of Belgium for their bravery in the face of the German invasion during the First World War. It is a slight piece and somewhat lacking in substance, especially compared to the other works on this recital. Nonetheless, it is a welcome addition, and a pleasant listen.

Telarc are up to their usual standards for excellent sound production. Program notes are concise, well crafted and informative. A fine addition to any collection, this disc is a winner on all counts. Highly recommended.

Kevin Sutton

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