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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Orchestral Works I
La Mer
, L(esure No.) 109 (1905) [24.26]
Trois Nocturnes, L 91 (1899) [22.32]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L 86 (1884) [10.29]
Marche écossaise, L 77 (1891) [6.23]
Berceuse héroïque, L 132 (1914) [4.47]
Musiques pour Le Roi Lear, L 107 (1904) [4.58]
Jeux, L 126 (1913) [18.15]
Images, L 122 (1909) [35.24]
Printemps (1882, lost; reconstructed Büsser, 1913) L 24 [16.00]
Choeurs de l’O.R.T.F.
Michel Sedrez and Fabienne Boury (pianos)
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon Salle Wagram, Paris, February 1973 and April 1974. ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3 65235 2 [74.15 + 70.07]

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Orchestral Works
Children's Corner, L 113 (1908, orch. André Caplet 1910) [17.55]
Petite Suite, L 65 (1889; orch. Henri Büsser 1907) [13.34]
Danses sacrée et profane, L 103 (1904) [9.15]
La Boîte à joujoux, L 28 (orch. André Caplet) (1913) [31.40]
Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, L 73 (1885) [23.53]
La plus que lente, L 121 (1910) [6.00]
Première Rapsodie for orchestra with principal clarinet, L 116 (1910) [8.11]
Rapsodie for orchestra with [alto] saxophone solo, L 98 (1911) [10.02]
Khamma, L 125 (Légende dánsée, orch. Charles Koechlin) (1911) [20.24]
Danse, L 69 (Tarantelle styrienne, orch. Maurice Ravel) (1890) [5.44]
Jules Goetgheluck, (oboe)

Marie-Claire Jamet, (harp)
Aldo Ciccolini, (piano)
John Leach, (cimbalom)
Guy Dangain, (clarinet)
Jean-Marie Londeix, (saxophone)
Fabienne Boury, (piano)
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon Salle Wagram, Paris, February 1973 and April 1974. ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3 65240 2 [72.54 + 74.54]

Comparison Recordings:

La Mer: Fritz Reiner, CSO [ADD] RCA BMG Sony SACD 82876-71614-2
Charles Munch, Boston SO [ADD] RCA BMG Sony SACD 82876-61387-2
Herbert Von Karajan, BPO, [ADD] DGG Galleria 427 250-2

Trois Nocturnes: Antal Dorati, Minneapolis SO Mercury Living Presence mono LP [OP]

Leopold Stokowski, LSO, BBC women’s chorus EMI CDC-7 47423 2

André Previn, RPO EMI CDE 67770

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune:

Herbert von Karajan, BPO [ADD] DGG Galleria 427 250-2
Leopold Stokowski, his SO, Julius Baker. [1957 ADD] EMI 67313
Leopold Stokowski, LSO [1972 ADD color video] EMI “classical archive” DVD DVA 4928429
Leopold Stokowski, NBC SO [1943 mono ADD] CALA CACD 0526

Images pour orchestre:

Charles Munch, Boston SO RCA BMG Sony SACD 82876-66374-2
Fritz Reiner (#2 only) CSO RCA Gold Seal 60179-2-RG
André Previn, LSO EMI 47001

Saxophone Rhapsody and Clarinet Rhapsody:

Leonard Bernstein, NYPO CBS Masterworks LP MS 6059

Danses sacrée et profane:

Ann Mason Stockton, harp; Felix Slatkin, Concert Arts CO [mono ADD] Testament SBT 1053

Comparative MusicWeb International reviews: 

Debussy’s death at 56, 25 years after Tchaikovky died at 53, was not so tragically young as with some other composers. However it was lingering and painful and sent shock-waves through the musical community, resulting in, among other masterpieces, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The Lesure catalog lists a total of 141 works by Debussy, yet virtually every composer of his time and after* was influenced by him.

When these recordings were originally released in the United States, they appeared on “Angel” LP pressings bereft of dynamic range as well as the bottom octave. It didn’t help that some of them bore the circular emblem indicating SQ quadrophonic playback. The rear channel information was so subtle and low in volume that even with a state-of-the-art quad system the ambient rear channel information was swamped by the inherent system cross-talk and might as well not have been there. In contrast, RCA Living Stereo offered La Mer and Images by Reiner (No. 2 only) and Munch in full blooded sound and the Dorati and Stokowski Nocturnes were available on other labels. Needless to say, these Martinon recordings attracted no attention, and the less well known works from these sessions were never released in the U.S. at all.

But here finally they appear on a nearly level playing field and can be appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic for their true excellence in performance and sonic quality and completeness of repertoire.

Munch’s Images is among the very finest versions of these works, especially on SACD, with Dutoit and Previn earning honorable mention for complete sets. Reiner, van Beinum, and Stokowski, among others, only ever recorded No. 2, “Ibèria,” admittedly very well, but that isn’t how Debussy wanted you to hear them. Watch for Reiner’s “Ibèria” to appear as an SACD any day now.

When Nadezhda von Meck wanted a music teacher for her children she didn’t choose her ward Tchaikovsky. When she engaged Debussy, she should have listened to the rumors about him; he fell madly in love with one of her daughters and asked for permission to court, with the result that he was abruptly dismissed and sent away. The daughters of Russian countesses do not marry randy unemployed French musicians; that is very, very unsuitable. But, the episode exposed Debussy to Russian music which changed his style dramatically as he absorbed it. 

Debussy must have known Glazunov’s Morye (“La Mer”) Orchestral Fantasy in E, Op 28, from 1889. The two works have a few strikingly similar passages in common, perhaps no more than certain passages in Mozart are like to passages in Beethoven; but the works differ in mood and length. Glazunov and Debussy were both influenced by Wagner. Did Glazunov know Debussy’s Printemps from 1886 when he wrote Vyesna (“Printemps”) Musical Picture in D, Op 34, in 1891? Again, it seems likely. To dispute Thomas Aquinas, some rivers flow both ways.

Since Debussy carefully combed his hair to cover his high hairline - almost as high as mine at his age - on the side toward the camera, he can be presumed to be sensitive about his appearance. Debussy avoided having his picture taken looking face on into the camera, but always turned to the side, looking away. This can be explained if his eyes diverged slightly, which can almost be seen if one looks carefully at the photos. Taneyev on the other hand was slightly cross-eyed, but he wasn’t vain and didn’t care who knew it. What was undisguisable was his odd conically-shaped head, rather flattened on top, which was actually accentuated by his pointed goatee and his comb-over. In 1913 in Paris Debussy was present at that amazingly violent premier of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and, as we have all heard the story, at the end of the piece was sobbing and saying over and over, “he’s a genius”. However, later commentators have made it clear that Debussy was really crying because he didn’t think to write it himself; his ballet Jeux, premiered two weeks before, had been catastrophically outclassed, and he was simply furious.

The four recordings of La Mer considered here are very different from each other; it’s at times difficult to believe they are playing from the same score. Yet they are so near to each other in overall quality of performance and sound that there is hardly an objective criterion on which to distinguish them. If you love the music you will want to hear them all, and if you must choose one, whichever you buy will be completely satisfactory. It has been suggested that Reiner’s and Karajan’s “sea” is the cold North Sea, whereas Munch and Martinon are presumably describing the warm Mediterranean, but that is really as far as anyone can go. Reiner and Munch appear on SACD, but Karajan and Martinon receive such excellent re-mastering that the difference, while audible on high-end equipment, is not musically significant. 

In the Danses for harp Martinon employs the full string section, whereas Slatkin uses one instrument to a part. Both harpists play superbly, but Ms. Jamet’s engineer has placed the microphone(s) so as to emphasize her finger noises; this is the kind of thing only critics will (or should) notice. Martinon plays with more passion and dynamics, but Slatkin gets just a little more of a 1920s pop music swing in the Danse profane, while his Danse Sacrée is just the way Hildegarde of Bingen would want to hear it.

One of the best ever Nocturnes was with Dorati and the Minneapolis SO. His remake with the [D.C. USA] National SO for Decca was predictably unremarkable. There was an adolescent zaniness in those raucous Mercury recordings which will never be heard again - and this one was never reissued on CD - so Stokowski on EMI is probably the very best version available in the outer movements, with Martinon best in the central movement. Michael Tilson Thomas deserves honorable mention.

Debussy had originally intended Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune** to be the first of three pieces describing a faun’s erotic afternoon entertainments, but this prelude said it all and he didn’t continue. In this work as in the outer slow movements of the Nocturnes, Stokowski is in his home element and is absolutely unbeatable, although some may find these versions a little too high in calories for everyday listening. From the depths of Polish/English mysticism to a silk-draped bright meadow of French delicacy, to young Siegfried in the Schwartzwald, the work can certainly benefit from a variety of viewpoints. It is amazing today to realize that audiences and critics once reacted with hostility and anger to this beautiful and exquisitely crafted music.

Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of the grand Romantic orchestral warhorses are controversial - that is, I don’t care for most of them - but in two areas — Joseph Haydn and modern French music — he was supreme. His superb recordings of the two wind Rapsodies are unfortunately not currently on CD, but we hope that will be remedied soon. In the meantime, these Martinon recordings are excellent also.

In summary, these recordings in their present form are as good or better than the best from other sources, but in their present form constitute an amazing bargain, so much so that anyone who loves this music should buy them quickly while they’re still available. 

Paul Shoemaker

* With the possible exception of Shostakovich, but Shostakovich was influenced by Messiaen who was influenced by Debussy. And Shostakovich was influenced by Wagner, Offenbach, Glazunov, and Mussorgsky who also influenced Debussy. So in the end it amounts to the same thing.

** A real finger-twister of a title to type; we music writers keep it in our auto-text folder, along with “l’Orchestre du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées,” “Mieczyslaw Horszowski,” and “Erwin Nyiregyházi.” 


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