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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-5) [24:54] (1)
Nocturnes (1897-99) [24:14] (2)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-94) [10:00] (3)
Hans-Jurgen Mohring (flute) (3),
Kolner Rundfunkchor (2),
Kolner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Gary Bertini
rec. live, Koln, Philharmonie, 6 November 1993 (1) , 3 August 1988 (2), 30 November 1987 (3). DDD
CAPRICCIO 71 092 [59:45]
 


This 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.
 
The 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.
 
There’s 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.
 
I compared a surround-sound disc with the same programme, that from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi recorded in 2004 (Telarc SACD-60617).
 
Here are the comparative timings:
Timings
I
II
III
TT
Bertini
9:54
6:40
8:20
24:54
Järvi
9:04
6:54
8:31
25:29

You’ll 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.
 
At 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.
 
Järvi’s 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.
 
Bertini’s 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.
 
Even 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 whipped up.
 
Järvi’s 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.
 
Next 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.
 
Here are the comparative timings:
Timings
I
II
III
TT
Bertini
7:21
6:32 
10:21
24:14
Järvi
7:22
6:22
10:47
24:31

The 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 found elsewhere.
 
The 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.
 
Järvi 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.
 
The 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 of calm.
 
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.
 
On 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 heard.
 
Järvi’s 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.
 
Bertini’s 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.
 
To 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.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 

 



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