One commonly hears Debussy and Ravel casually lumped together, rather
like Mahler and Bruckner. But listen to the music: Debussy's
pellucid sonorities and unstable, questing harmonic idiom bespeaks
an entirely different aesthetic from Ravel's lush, surging,
yet equally clear textures. Mahler and Bruckner, too, are more
different than alike, but we'll save that for another review.
So, while some conductors excel at both composers - Ansermet,
Martinon, and Monteux come to mind - it's no surprise that others
don't. Charles Munch, for example, had a fine feel for Debussy's
luminous sounds, but his Boston recordings of Ravel tended towards
the manic. With the mercurial Munch, this may have been a day-to-day
affair: his Philadelphia recording of Valses nobles et sentimentales
was relaxed and luxuriant. So, too, with Paavo Järvi, whose
Debussy improves markedly on his only intermittently successful
Ravel (Telarc CD-80601).
The Faune is typical, with many of its strengths derived from
the conductor's attention to softer dynamics. The opening flute
solo, while sensitive, misses the liquid, soft-grained timbre
of real "French" playing. There’s still a nice sense
of the scene gradually emerging from far away, with soft, cushioned
horns calling across the orchestra. At the subsequent, pronounced
increase of tempo, even the lyrical string phrases become fleet
and airborne. The 3/4-vs-9/8 passage at 5:00, after an attractively
muted start, betrays moments of insecurity - as it nearly always
does. By contrast the following violin solo is tender and fragile.
The oboe solo ushering in the coda is achingly beautiful.
The Nocturnes, too, go well. The woodwinds' clear, no-nonsense
exposition of Nuages will disconcert those expecting
an "Impressionistic" haze. Järvi plays up the contrast
between the austere harmonies of the principal theme and the
strings' luscious answering phrases. The modal cadences unexpectedly
foreshadow Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia! In Fêtes, hairpin dynamics shape the scurrying
lines, with the woodwinds everywhere alert. At a slower tempo,
the approaching procession sounds vaguely sinister, though there's
the usual awkwardness of integrating this theme into the original
tempo. The Sirènes - as embodied in the Women of the
May Festival Chorus - are lovely, gentle and "settled",
their clean textures standing in clear relief against the orchestra.
La mer is less consistent, best in those
moments - at 7:04 of the first movement, for example, or in
the second's coda - where a rapt serenity suspends time without
turning simply static. Järvi once again achieves clarity without
etching the texture with excessively sharp edges. But much of
the playing evinces a mild rhythmic nervousness, reflected not
in any blatant ensemble mis-coordination but in a lack of real
unanimity and precision. Add a few passing stray balances -
where one's attention goes, say, to a bass line rather than
a theme, or to the middle of a chord rather than the top - and
you end up with a good, enjoyable performance instead of a distinctive
The Berceuse héroïque, still a relative rarity, is polished
and mysterious, though it ends rather abruptly.
While there are numerous high-profile recordings of most of these pieces,
even the Debussy specialists haven't always shown at their best.
Ansermet's Nocturnes (Decca), for example, are stiff
and drily recorded to boot, while Martinon (EMI) suffers a washy,
reverberant ambience in both the Nocturnes and La
mer. So if you're new to the repertoire, and looking for
this combination of pieces, this handsomely recorded album will
serve very well. Some listeners might prefer a more distant,
blurring recorded perspective, but I like the clarity afforded
by Telarc's more subtle ambience, at least in normal frontal
stereo. I was unable to hear the SACD or surround layers.