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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images pour orchestre (1906-1911) [37:10]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [11:37]
La Mer (1905) [26:24]
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma, June 1989. Live recording. DDD

Deutsche Grammophon's Entrée series is aimed fairly and squarely at the new classical music buyer.  The website dedicated to the series describes it as “a basic library of essential repertoire that introduces new consumers to the world of classical music and can be promoted in life-style magazines etc ”, and notes that “the series combines artistic value with visual appeal –  it looks classy and more expensive than it actually is – a series that people will be looking at as well as listening to”.
The stylish monochromatic cover art that adorns each issue is certainly attractive and is reminiscent of the old Virgin Ultraviolet range, which was similarly priced and also well received by the “lifestyle magazine” segment of the market.  The pitch is enhanced by the inclusion of decent booklet notes that emphasise biography, getting new listeners to take an interest in the composer rather than frightening them with detailed discussion of the music.  As a final sweetener, the conductor is one of the big names: Leonard Bernstein.  Unfortunately, here Bernstein's name is not necessarily a harbinger of idiomatic or reliable performance.
The Images are played out of order, with Gigues first up, followed by Rondes du Printemps and Iberia bringing up the tail.  These pieces actually come off quite well, though they do not sound very French.  Bernstein's enthusiasm elicits a muscular nonchalance from the orchestra, in particular from the winds and the brash brass.  Gigues and Iberia in particular have a sun-drenched, salt spray Mediterranean tang to them, and there is real snap in Iberia's final bars.  The orchestra's playing is a bit scrappy – not terrible, but noticeably out of the big league.
Bernstein's Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is probably the longest and most languid I know.  It has a lot to recommend it, and plenty of romantic ardour.  However, at Bernstein's pace – he takes easily a minute longer than the average – it can sound directionless.  As much as I like Bernstein's view, I'll take Stokowski's erotic rendition of this piece any day.
La Mer receives the most controversial performance on this disc.  There are some magical moments, like the beckoning horn calls at about 8:30 into the first movement.  There are also some real miscalculations.  Bernstein's tempi overall are slow.  This did not bother me so much in the first and second movements, though it sapped the sea of some of its mercurial mystery.  The third movement, though, becomes distended – the chromatic passages about 1:30 into the final movement lack impetus, and the end of the piece is like a train-wreck in slow motion.
Bernstein's insights are certainly not to be dismissed out of hand and, though on balance I found this disc disappointing, it is by no means all bad.  That said, I think Deutsche Grammophon could have chosen better, more idiomatic, less idiosyncratic recordings for its Entrée audience.  Karajan's 1960s or 1980s La Mer or his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, for example.  Then there’s Boulez's prize-winning Debussy disc, which has been in the catalogue for twelve years and is surely due for a mid-price reissue.  The sound is also not the best, the acoustic being brightly lit and dry with a hard edge to the brass and upper strings.  The ear adjusts, but will beginners have the patience?
This is a disc for Debussy collectors and Bernstein fans only.  New initiates are better served by the recent re-release of Jean Martinon's excellent performances on EMI Gemini (also available in a Brilliant Classics box, or in an EMI Bargain Box together with Ravel's orchestral music).  And notice the Gemini cover art – stylish monochromatic pictures!  Look out for the advertisements in your favourite lifestyle magazine.
Tim Perry


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