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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faune (1892) [9:23]
Nocturnes (1897-9) [24:31]*
La mer (1903-5) [24:29]
Berceuse héroïque (1914/5) [5:13]
Women of the May Festival Chorus *
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, January and February 2004
TELARC SACD-60617 [64:15]


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 one.

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.

Stephen Francis Vasta 



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