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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer - trois esquisses symphoniques (1903-05) [25:50]
Zhou LONG (b. 1953)
The Deep, Deep Sea, for alto flute/piccolo, timpani, harp and strings* (2004) [10:40]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
The Sea - suite for orchestra (1910-11) [23:11]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
La Mer - fantaisie pour grand orchestre, Op. 28 (1889) [18:14]
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
Sharon Bezaly (alto flute/piccolo); Gulnara Mashurova (harp); Jonathan Fox (timpani)
rec. August 2004 (Debussy, Zhou Long, Glazunov), July 2005 (Bridge), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
BIS SACD 1447 [79:50]


BIS are really on a roll with their latest batch of hybrid discs, notably the excellent Tchaikovsky/Medtner piano concertos with Yevgeny Sudbin and the São Paulo Orchestra under John Neschling [see Christopher Howell’s review]. Technically superb, that recording crackles with extraordinary creative energy, so much so that one hears these well-worn works anew.

Seascapes, which takes its cue from the first movement of The Sea by Frank Bridge, also marries a less-well-known band and star soloist (Sharon Bezaly) with some familiar repertoire (the Zhou Long excepted). It’s a formula that has worked before but does it yield results this time round?

Debussy’s La Mer is probably the best known 20th-century ‘water music’ and its wash of colours and shifting harmonies is a real challenge to musicians and engineers alike. On the strength of this disc the Singapore Symphony are certainly up to it. Formed in 1979, the SSO is regarded as one of Asia’s finest ensembles and has toured the Far East, Europe and America. Under their music director, Chinese-born Lan Shui, they are certainly making waves of their own.

The mysterious ripple and shimmer that opens De l'aube à midi sur la mer has rarely sounded so evocative. Compared with Bernard Haitink’s much-praised recording (Philips Duo 438 742-2) one could argue that this southern seascape is a much brighter, bluer one than that of Debussy’s imagination. The marvellous instrumental perspectives and textures on the BIS disc, with delectable playing from all quarters, gives the music a jewel-like sparkle that one rarely finds in more northerly accounts of the work.

Straight A/B comparisons between the CD and two-channel SACD layers are instructive; as good as the CD sound undoubtedly is, the high-resolution layer is markedly superior, with a smooth, airy sound that is remarkably three-dimensional.  Where Haitink and the Concertgebouw achieve a homogeneous (dare one say more conventional) sound, Lan Shui and the more individual SSO build to a wonderful blaze of light as the sun reaches its height. A nice sense of scale, though, just when one might be tempted to pull out all the stops.

In Jeux de vagues the lap and swirl of the waves is an excellent example of what has been called Debussy’s gift of ‘musical onomatopoeia’. Shui secures some precise yet characterful playing from the SSO, never forcing the pace and allowing the music to expand naturally in the climaxes. And what a sensuous, ear-pricking close to this movement, as it fades to inky silence.

Debussy crowns this glorious piece with Dialogue du vent et de la mer, marked animé et tumultueux. And animated and tumultuous it certainly is, from the agitated introduction to the final peroration. Haitink seems a little po-faced in this movement but Shui finds real excitement, with the steady tread of the timps adding to the momentum. But it is the harps at 4’ 57” that offer up some of the most beguiling sounds I’ve heard in ages. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard the instrument so beautifully recorded and integrated into the musical texture. Even in the closing bars Shui refuses to overplay his hand, with a crisp, perfectly judged finale. A most satisfying performance all round.

Beijing-born composer Zhou Long’s The Deep, Deep Sea takes as its inspiration The Hard Road, by Chinese poet Li Bai (701-762 A.D.). Although it is supposed to evoke a difficult sea voyage the piece (dedicated to Sharon Bezaly) seems equally to suggest a world beneath the waves. Perhaps we can swap the ship’s porthole for that of a bathysphere as the music glides downwards into the deepening gloom, the harp and flute swaying anemones of sound.

It is all very evocative, cinematic even, but that is not in the least disparaging. It’s certainly well crafted and it’s one of the most sensuous pieces on this disc. The notes highlight Freud’s phrase ‘oceanic feeling’ and The Deep, Deep Sea really seems to tap into our shared consciousness with its strangely mesmeric, yet calming, progressions. I found myself listening to it several times in a row, just to savour its seductive sound world.

Bridge’s The Sea takes us to the surface once more. The first movement, Seascape, which opens with a long-held chord of E major, is vaguely reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. It’s certainly more symphonic than anything we’ve heard so far and brings to mind the Four Sea Interludes, by his pupil Benjamin Britten, especially at the close of Seascape and in the staccato writing of Sea-foam.

The remaining movements – Moonlight (Adagio ma non troppo) and Storm (Allegro energico) – may be painted with a broad brush but they brim with lovely instrumental touches (just listen to the close of Moonlight). Predictably enough Shui unleashes quite a storm, with rasping brass and a series of cymbal-capped ‘waves’ dashing against the shore. Perhaps in other hands the elements might rage more fiercely but it’s pretty awesome nonetheless.

The Bridge is a hard act to follow so it’s not surprising if Glazunov’s voyage seems a little less perilous by comparison. He admits his La Mer was composed ‘under the strong influence of [Wagner]’ and I suppose one can discern something of Der Fliegende Holländer in its more tumultuous moments. That said, it strikes me as distinctly Russianate, with echoes of Tchaikovsky in the harp melody at 2’ 37 that launches a delectable flowing passage for full orchestra. Glazunov certainly cranks up the decibels when required yet the traveller arrives at his destination in a mood of quiet optimism.

This well-filled disc is a real cracker. The programme is well chosen and once again it seems BIS have pulled off a sonic and artistic coup. It’s the first time I’ve heard Lan Shui and the SSO, who have already recorded several discs for BIS. Intriguingly, one of them (with the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble) pairs pieces called the Garbage Concerto and Rock Symphony. That’s bound to be a challenge, but on the evidence of Seascapes alone I’d be keen to hear more of them in future.

Dan Morgan


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