is a first on SACD: orchestral Debussy in live performances.
From the sultry languor of the opening of La Mer it
seems Gary Bertini’s is to be a fastidiously appreciated
seascape with more emphasis on atmosphere than activity.
In the first movement, ‘From Dawn to Noon on the Sea’ you’re
made very much aware of the structure and the instrumental
detail. The surround-sound helps, of course. To understand
the work’s structural complexity it’s helpful to read Simon
Trezise’s 1994 Cambridge handbook In Bertini’s introduction
you’re not really aware of a specific beginning point. The
sound, just like the Dawn, creeps up on you. A whiff of wind
then the first theme on cor anglais and muted trumpet (tr.
1 0:58), evocative but not especially dramatic.
first section of the movement proper begins at 1:58. Indeed
there are waves and an almost ballet-like placing of every
effect. That extraordinary passage in which Debussy asks
for, and almost never gets, 16 cellos divided into 4 groups,
begins the second section (5:09). After its initial flourish
it’s marked ‘Very rhythmic’ but Bertini’s cellos aren’t particularly
dance-like. He relies on the violins later and his fine control
of carefully graded shifts in tempo to get the effect of
varieties of wave patterns.
a lovely lulling just before the interlude which showcases
a warm cor anglais theme (7:34) well balanced with two cello
soloists. The coda (8:32) depicts the sea mist parting to
reveal the blaze of the midday sun in a wind chorale in which
trombones appear for the first time. Bertini’s dynamic contrasts
are good, though at this stage I feel it’s all more observed
than experienced. You’re well protected in a watertight cabin.
compared a surround-sound disc with the same programme, that
from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi recorded
in 2004 (Telarc SACD-60617).
are the comparative timings:
get a bit wet with Järvi. His introduction is warm but expectant.
There’s already activity in his first theme and a dramatic
swell into the first section where Bertini is comparatively
mechanical. There’s a certain nonchalance but also more pleasure
in this awakening. Bertini is content to enjoy a mélange
of clear thematic flotsam. Järvi’s cellos do dance, leading
more seamlessly to the blithe high violins’ waves and then
becalming. His coda has a more telling quality of mystery
before the blaze.
the opening of the second movement, ‘Games of the Waves’,
Bertini conjures an attractive spirit of elusiveness: now
you see them, now you don’t. The violins’ theme with bristling
trills that begins the second section (tr. 2 0:47) is lively
and charismatic but the second theme on cor anglais (1:26)
is I feel somewhat submerged in its surrounding of glockenspiel,
triangle and cymbal figurations. On the other hand, as all
are marked soft it’s arguable that this is exactly what Debussy
wanted. Throughout Bertini revels in teasing out Debussy’s
rhythmic flexibility. The third section sees the return of
the violins’ trilling theme on two flutes (4:11) but it’s
a new theme, begun by second violins and cellos (4:23) that
progresses delicately yet through Bertini’s fine control
of increasing propulsion and expectation you know it will
reach an ecstatic climax. The coda (5:24) offers a welcome,
yet not totally easy, repose.
cor anglais theme is for me better realized, more prominent
than the glockenspiel. His games are a little more active
and animated. The return of the trilling theme and development
of the new one has a more tingling nervous energy and his
climax when it comes is more exultant, his coda more restful.
finale, ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’, begins with a
brooding threat which becomes menacing as the waves gather.
The opening section is notable for the care of its rhythmic
pointing and phrasing. A little academic, perhaps, out of
which the keening trumpet fanfares startle and the elemental
force begins to be felt with the lower strings’ rushes (tr.
3 1:11). Bertini’s second section (1:29) finds the main theme
aching over restless lower strings. His third section (2:09)
brings a wilder version of the opening material, thrashing
strings, crashing cymbals - a bristling climax.
the interlude (3:27) in which the chorale of the first movement
returns is a rather ominous, eerie calm. Very sensitive first
violins’ harmonics are set down (4:25). Did you hear them
or did you imagine them? I think that’s just what Debussy
intended. Yet a perceptible sound which is, as marked, ‘More
calm and very expressive’ before Bertini gives the return
of the main theme a personal and pleading character over
comforting lower strings. Its climax (5:38) is passionate
but still only a staging post. The return of the opening
section restlessness (6:11) is now more propelled before
an electrifying second section return (7:03) to which is
added the chorale (7:24) and a sense of the utmost straining
of the sea which culminates in a coda (7:54) frenetically
finale is more colourful yet less elemental. His opening
section has more sense of menace from the outset, the contrabassoon
not heard in previous movements noticeable. His treatment
of the main theme has more romantic yearning. His chorale
return in the interlude is balmier. His violins’ harmonics
are on the edge of audibility, not enough sound for me to
be ‘More calm and very expressive’. Latterly he ratchets
up the tension to a heady climax. This is a more polished
performance but in this movement a less affecting one than
Bertini’s. Comparisons don’t always provide clear-cut preferences.
come the Nocturnes. The booklet notes point
out that the title refers to the inspiration of Whistler’s
paintings and mention the well known Nocturne: Blue and
Gold: Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-75). You may view
this on the Tate website. This Capriccio disc also includes
a poetic translation of Debussy’s programme notes from which
I’ll quote selectively. The first Nocturne, Clouds, offers ‘a
uniform sky through which clouds slowly and melancholically
make their path, dying in the greyness dotted with soft white
nuances’. Bertini’s clouds seem to coast along a bit. I don’t
mind this because the interest is partly in the foreground,
the rich cor anglais (tr. 4 0:19) which I think of as a boat
with its horns’ hooter (eg. 1:40), echoed from the depths
of the river by fingerboard lower strings (eg. 1:42). The
melancholy increases in the central section from 2:21 with
a long prepared then briefly reached climax at 2:57. Then
for a while from 4:25 comes relief, as if the clouds are
dispersed and the ‘white nuances’ predominate, to become
just a glimmering recollection at 6:49 within a closing passage
where Bertini’s boat glides over a chill expanse.
are the comparative timings:
performances are more divergent than these timings suggest.
Järvi’s Clouds are more an artist’s portrait, crafted,
almost perfumed. The central section is gradually more ominous,
the change to the ‘white nuances’ subtler, less initially
happy. For Järvi time stands still more markedly at the end.
Bertini has a more natural flow, is more direct, weathered
and raw, yet there’s also more of a sentient quality in the
cloud density in his divided strings’ chords and the ‘white
nuances’ benefit from being decked out in a smoothness not
second Nocturne, Festivals brings ‘the dancing rhythm
of the atmosphere, abruptly illuminated by bright lighting’ and ‘a
parade – a slightly unreal vision as if from a fairy tale
- a parade that approaches the festival and is swallowed
up in it’. Bertini introduces the strongest possible contrast
with an opening which seems all frenzied rhythm crowned by
fanfare. It’s as if expectation is everything and varieties
of dance are already there before the parade, like different
floats passing to be scrutinized. Then the parade approaches
(tr. 5 2:29) from afar, drumbeats first, then trumpets. The
following gradual crescendo is vivid enough and you’re soon
in the thick of it. What impresses me more, however, is Bertini’s
humour in revealing what sounds like demure stragglers’ recollections
led by the oboe at 5:38 before all is no more than orchestral
specks of dust.
treats the opening of Festivals as more of a virtuoso
romp, jazzy trumpets especially. It has less edge than Bertini
but more carnival atmosphere, more letting hair down. The
procession does have more of a dreamy haze about its start
yet an irresistible pulse. You hear the meeting of the opening
theme in the strings and procession in the wind more explicitly
whereas it’s more of a merged experience from Bertini at
3:45. Both are suitable takes on ‘swallowed up’. Järvi’s
embers are more crafted and thereby less humorous. I’d suggest
Bertini is closer to Debussy’s conception, however, as his ‘Animated
and very rhythmic’ start is as much an essence as an activity
and his opening maintains a slight, though pleasurable, distance
from that activity, thus anticipating the initial distance
of the parade.
final Nocturne, Sirens focuses on ‘the sea and its
movement in innumerable rhythms’ as ‘the mysterious song
of the sirens is heard across the waves reflecting the moonlight,
a bright string of laughter fading away’. Immediately from
Bertini you notice a liquid quality. This comes from the
two harps and muted lower strings in the surround sound acoustic.
Bertini’s flowing tempo and their sheer presence within the
acoustic makes the wordless women’s chorus seductive Sirens
indeed but at the same time Bertini makes you appreciate
Debussy’s study in variety and density of rhythm. Chorus
and orchestra are seamlessly matched. On first hearing I
thought the strings’ climax (tr. 6 5:05) too wave like to
revel in the music. But Bertini is scrupulous to the score
and less studied in effect here than Järvi. Bertini’s are
highly serrated waves, the Sirens at their most alluring,
but this is another fading vision, calming to slightly ruffled
waves before the closing still expanse.
Järvi’s Sirens is
at a disadvantage for me in having the eight soprano and
eight mezzo Sirens placed rather beyond the orchestra and
accordingly, in a glowing acoustic, a little disembodied
and unattainable beyond the balmy density of the opening
seascape. I prefer Bertini’s Sirens who are in the middle
distance, at one with the orchestra and therefore sea, more
of a temptation and more passionate. His is the lighter touch
with more sense of flow and kinetic energy, his strings’ effects
more wave-like, though Järvi is more opulent in the moments
Bertini’s Faun features
a quite smooth but very directly phrased flute solo and a
certain lingering manner, not overdone but marking the early,
and only, one bar rest (tr. 7 0:34) as a moment of utter
stillness. Generally Bertini’s is a savoured rather than
languid approach with lots of perceptible detail. One example:
the second harp punctuation at 2:02 to the first harp’s whirlpool
rippling. You aren’t aware of this in Järvi’s account. Bertini’s
wind solos throughout are characterful, not as suave as Järvi’s.
The clarinet at 3:14 is particularly hard-toned.
the other hand this makes for more of a dazzlingly sunny
contrast at the first sustained intervention of the violins
at 3:51 in the first part of the middle section which begins
with the oboe solo at 3:41. The second part (4:50) marked ‘Less
movement and very sustained’, is given a telling calm by
Bertini, with richly variegated detail around the strings’ repeat
at 5:22 of its new woodwind theme. The opening flute solo
returns at 6:32 but it’s the sweet, yearning very soft ‘very
gentle and expressive’ two violins’ solo over the divided
fingerboard strumming of the other strings at 7:45 that steals
the show. The close is as clear and haunting as any I’ve
is a smoother, more erotic performance with slightly richer
and denser tone. Only slightly faster, a total timing of
9:23 against Bertini’s 10:00, but with more marked internal
contrasts of tempo. For instance Järvi’s middle section,
beautifully played, opens more reflectively because the oboe
solo isn’t animated as marked. So it becomes gleaming and
satiated, falling away to a magical introduction of the second
part which is ravishingly played. However, the two violins’ solo
sounds rather impersonally antiquated, over-influenced perhaps
by Debussy’s first use of antique cymbals in this section
and Järvi’s close seems just a little calculated.
account is comparatively roughshod, but interesting for that,
though more for its greater sense of striving, inner and
surrounding detail, as well as providing a warmer close.
A performance to surprise you when you think you know the
work, a comment which equally applies to all the Bertini
Debussy on this disc.
return finally to my opening point. I’m very surprised that
in surround sound, which my experience of LSO Live tells
me can be very sensitive to this, there’s no audience ever
to be discerned in any of these WDR radio recordings. This
suggests to me Bertini’s recordings may have been made, like
the later Bychkov WDR Symphony Orchestra Brahms cycle on
CD and DVD, without an audience present, though they still
have the spontaneity of expression, lack of artifice and
integrity of flow which suggest unedited performances.