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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Orchestral works
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Orchestral works
see end of review for details
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 1989-2004
EMI CLASSICS 5145652 [5 CDs: 360:11]
Experience Classicsonline


The performances on these CDs are, in the main, of familiar Debussy and Ravel works; most have been recorded a good number of times so Rattle faces strong competition including much admired recordings from Ernest Ansermet (who was a significant figure in the world of music between 1915 and 1968 and was incidentally present at the first performance of Debussy’s Images) plus admired recordings by Karajan, Cantelli, Haitink, Tortelier, Dutoit and Celibidache to name but a few. Yet all these Rattle performances are atmospheric and colourful and at least one, Rattle’s reading of Debussy’s La Mer with the Berlin Philharmoniker is rated very highly as is his reading of the complete ballet of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The EMI sound for these recordings, made between 1989 and 2004 is spacious, warm and detailed.
 
CD1 opens with something of a rarity, two short pieces from Debussy’s incidental music for Le Roi Lear. The opening Fanfare is very regal and one might judge them to be a very British creation, if it was not known that the composer was French. ‘The Slumber of Lear’ is very much in Debussy’s usual mould, hazy and sultrily atmospheric with horns lending a sense of distant perspectives as Lear’s sleeping and dreaming proceeds in serenity.
 
Jeux was premiered in 1913 by the Ballets Russes, just two weeks before Stravinsky's then scandalous Le sacre du printemps. Jeux is set in a tennis court, where a man meets two women. He charms them, flirting with one until he gets a kiss so making the other jealous. The second girl then dances with him, until the first leaves. They join together again at the end, and the ballet ends with a tennis ball rolling across the stage, edging the trio offstage. Jeux was criticized for being somewhat inaccessible. Upon an initial hearing it can sound daunting for it is complicated. Its adventurous harmonies stretch the limits of tonality and it contains a number of techniques carried over from Debussy's earlier opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy breaks from his earlier richly-bodied orchestrations toward fragmented pointillistic writing and continually evolving harmonies, an organic music in which all elements of the composition grow from the simplest cell. In his 1989 recording, Rattle emphasizes the sensuous and voluptuous aspects of the music plus its implications of sexual manipulation and cruel wit.
 
Rattle’s 1989 reading of Debussy’s Trois Images is colourful and has atmosphere and engaging rhythmic vitality especially in the central triple Andalusian portraits: ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’ (in the roads and alleys) captures, in its varying moods and sonorities, the sunshine and shadows and mysteries associated with a Southern Spanish city like Seville, while the still sultriness and fragrances of ‘Les Parfums de la nuit’ beautifully segues into awakening day and the exhilarating dance rhythms of ‘Le Matin d’un jour de fête’. ‘Rondes des Printemps’, the final Image, shares its joyful festive mood, alternating with passages of Debussy’s idiomatic hazy sultriness. It’s in sunnier contrast to the more sober and melancholic ‘Gigues’ with its sad oboe d’amore that is the opening Image based on the folk-tune ‘The Keel Row’.
 
During 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. Although direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been located in any of Debussy's own compositions, there is little doubt that the influence of this exotic music appears in his music including ‘Pagodes’ from Debussy’s Estampes. Percy Grainger’s orchestration is a delight, with such expressive use of a battery of exotic percussion including xylophone, cimbalom, piano, tam-tam, and accordion.
 
CD2 is devoted to Debussy but this time Simon Rattle is in Berlin and we’ve moved forward to 2004. This disc includes that highly praised La Mer. In passing I would like to quote Caroline Potter (in "Debussy and Nature" in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, p. 149): she suggests that Debussy's depiction of the sea "avoids monotony by using a multitude of water figurations that could be classified as musical onomatopoeia: they evoke the sensation of swaying movement of waves and suggest the pitter-patter of falling droplets of spray" (and so forth), and — significantly — avoid the arpeggiated triads used by Wagner and Schubert to evoke the movement of water.”
 
So what is Rattle’s performance like? It certainly is very atmospheric right from the pianissimo opening chords of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’; evocative subtlety in nuance and shading and phrasing together with powerful climaxing – it’s all here. In the scherzo middle movement ‘Jeux de vagues’, the hedonistic interplay of spray and ocean breezes is magnificently, joyfully caught; as good as any interpretation I can remember hearing on record. Sir Simon’s ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ builds up tensely, relentlessly into one hell of a storm, the central lull is full of latent menace. Yes, I would put this performance up in front with Karajan and Celibidache, especially considering the excellence of the sound engineering.
 
Rattle’s vision of the Faun’s languid afternoon dreaming also impresses. Just listen, for instance, to the horn’s dialogue, in the opening minute, giving perspective and drawing us into the pianissimo stringed haze that is the creature’s dappled sunlit woods. With delicacy and refinement, Rattle realizes Debussy’s portrait after Mallarmé, of the Faun’s reverie and attempted seduction of the two nymphs. Mallarmé himself wrote to Debussy after the first performance saying that it, “went so much further into the nostalgia and light, and with such finesse, anxiety and richness …”
 
Le Boite à joujou (The Toybox) was composed before Jeux and is in a somewhat simpler vein, revisiting techniques Debussy had employed in his piano pieces that comprised Children’s Corner. ‘Le Magasin de jouets’ (The Toyshop), the most substantial movement is a kaleidoscopic tour, suggestive of toy soldiers parading, a springing jack-in-the-box, mysterious Chinese dolls and wicked magicians, plus clowns (in jazzy cakewalk style), galloping Cossacks and splendidly gowned dolls dancing a Viennese waltz. For ‘Le Champ de Bataille’ Debussy imagines a child playing the black keys of the piano in a stealthy interplay before toy soldiers march into battle. ‘Le Bergerie à vendre’ (The sheepfold for sale) featuring a captivating cor anglais solo, is a somewhat skittish pastoral with a folksong base, while somewhat fuzzy allusions to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and The Keel Row feature in the final movement.
 
The Three Preludes orchestrated imaginatively by Colin Matthews is an interesting collection. ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ (What the west wind saw) is one of Debussy’s most advanced scores and Rattle draws out its black menacing figures that somehow foreshadow Bartók. In contrast “Feuilles mortes’ (Dead leaves) is all falling melancholy and a sense of dank decay. The third Prelude, ‘Feux d’artifice’ lifts the spirits with the colourful brilliance of Bastille Day fireworks, beginning, one might imagine, with the whirl of the Catherine wheel.
 
CD3 takes us into the magical world of Ravel commencing with the Fanfare pour L’Éventail de Jeanne that was Ravel’s contribution to a multi-composer commission for a children’s ballet. It opens with a heavy drum-roll and ends with a long reverberating tam-tam crash with ‘toy town’ figures between, piccolo and trumpets prominent. Régine Crespin’s classic 1963 recording of Shéhérazade with such a wonderfully evocative accompaniment by Ernest Ansermet remains unsurpassed. It is now available as a splendidly refurbished Decca Legends CD 460 973-2 and I commend it without reservation; it also includes a melting performance of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été. Although Rattle’s reading cannot rival Ansermet’s in terms of atmosphere and dramatic effect, this is a very acceptable performance and the recorded sound is quite vivid. Maria Ewing makes up for rather indistinct intonation with a beautiful legato line and contouring. She nicely suggests the languid mood and enigmatic sensuality of L’Indifférent.
 
Rattle’s Alborada del gracioso (Aubade of the jester) has shadowy corners and is provocative in its colourfully eccentric dance rhythms, although, for me, it is just that tad heavy-handed. Percy Grainger’s orchestration of La Vallée des cloches from Miroirs adds magic to magic, bells on bells with the gamelan sound enhancing its oriental essence and the strings providing atmosphere of calm meditation. Mother Goose - Ma Mère l’Oye in Rattle’s hands is engagingly shaped, warm and tender and full of childish innocence and wonder. Rattle is sympathetic to Ravel’s intent that it should be as ‘the poetry of childhood’. The evocation of the spinning wheel is all dizzy enchantment; the Pavane is dainty nostalgia, and the waltz section of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is exquisite. ‘Tom Thumb’s fate is sweet plaintiveness. The gentle chinoiserie of Laideronette (The plain little girl) is a vividly coloured concoction employing a wide variety of exotic percussion. The closing ‘Fairy garden’ is quite sublime here with lovely flute and violin solos. Again the orchestral balance is very good and clear, aided by excellent sound engineering. La Valse is less successful, however. It is rather harsh in this reading and sounds over bright. Competitive recordings offer more a faceted, sympathetic approach with more mystery, and atmosphere balancing the more grotesque elements, and more glamour, the irony more subtly shaded.
 
CD4, in the main, is devoted to a complete performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The ballet was conceived by Diaghilev and his circle in 1909; however the original Longus story was developed quite differently for the stage. Ravel imagined a ‘Greece of his dreams’ close to that of certain 18th century painters while choreographer Michael Fokine wanted the dances to mimic the authentic dances of the ancient world as recognized from ancient vases. Rattle’s reading is most enjoyable; it is atmospheric - sample the gorgeous ‘Daybreak’ opening of Part III, for instance - and often voluptuous and intoxicating, especially in the case of the final Danse générale and the dynamic Dance guerrière. The recorded sound is excellent and very detailed. But this presentation is not helped by inadequate notes. There is no track-by-track analysis: 13 are indicated spread over the work’s three parts, but no titles are given so the action cannot be followed closely; only a brief plot synopsis is given. Rattle’s Boléro is expansively recorded too but it feels laboured and it unfolds slowly; I found myself urging more spontaneity and snappier rhythms. Try Karajan’s white heat reading (with Daphnis et Chloé No. 2) on DG 427 2502.
 
CD5 is concerned with Ravel’s Piano Concertos. Interestingly there are two comparative versions of the Concerto for the Left Hand. The earlier 1977 recording was made with Andrei Gavrilov as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra; the other with Cécile Ousset and the City of Birmingham Symphony. Ousset consistently delivers slower readings, for instance, the opening Lento - Più lento - Andante movement has Gavrilov taking only 8:09 as against Ousset’s 8:23. In the outer movements Gavrilov’s rhythmic inflections are more strongly accented and in the quieter central parts of those movements Gavrilov digs deeper and finds a pathos and a poetic delicacy that escapes Ousset. Shame then that Gavrilov did not also record the G major Concerto with Rattle. In that Concerto, Ousset also disappoints in the crucial, lovely Adagio assai central movement. Her reading is altogether too cool and uninvolving which is all the more disappointing because Rattle provides a most characterful accompaniment. If you want a recommended coupling of both concertos try the 1999 DG recording with Zimerman accompanied by Boulez, or the bargain EMI coupling with Collard and Maazel. But for the G major the outright winner has to be Michelangeli with Gracis on EMI 567238-2 an undisputed classic of the gramophone and coupled with a terrific reading of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4.
 
The final CD is completed with another fine reading of ‘Le jardin féerique’ from Ma Mère l’Oye, this time with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Beautiful it is too, with a meltingly lovely violin solo.
 
A confident recommendation for those requiring such a collection. But as far as individual works are concerned there are frequently better alternatives.
 
Ian Lace

Disc details

CD1 [67:52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Musique pour Le Roi Lear (orch. Roger-Ducasse) (1904) [4:47]
Jeux (1912) [19:24]
Trois Images pour orchestre: Gigues; Ibéria Rondes de printemps (1905-12) [37:15]
Estampes-Pagodes * (orch. Grainger) (1903) [5:58]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
rec. Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Warwick, UK, 15-17 November 1989 and * Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 1-2 December 1996.
CD2 [78:46]
Claude DEBUSSY
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-4) [10:17]
La Mer (1903-5) [24:12]
La Boîte à joujou (orc. Caplet) [31:40]
Trois Preludes (orch. C. Matthews): (1910-13) [11:53]
Berliner Philharmoniker
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin 17-10 October 2004.
CD3 [74:35]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Fanfare pour ‘LÉventail de Jeanne’ (?) [2:18]
Shéhérazade: Asie; La Flûte enchantée; L’Indifférent * (1903) [17:37]
Alborada del gracioso (1918) [7:41]
Miroirs – La Vallée des cloches (orch. Grainger) (1905) [5:38]
Ma Mère l’Oye (1911-12) [28;43]
La Valse (1920) [12:33]
Maria Ewing* (soprano) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
rec. Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Warwick, UK 1-5 October 1989 and 6-14 April 1990
CD4 [73:17]
Maurice RAVEL
Daphnis et Chloé: (complete) (1909-12) [57:02]
Boléro (1928) [16:15]
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
rec. Arts Centre University of Warwick, Warwick, UK 16-17 and 21 December 1990
CD5 [65:15]
Maurice RAVEL
Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand (1929-30) (two recordings)
Andrei Gavrilov (piano); London Symphony Orchestra [17:43]; Cécile Ousset (piano) [18:50];
Piano Concerto in G (1929-31) [22:41]
Cécile Ousset (piano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
rec. Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Warwick, UK, 26-27 April 1990.
Ma Mère l’Oye: ‘Le Jardin féerique’(1911-12) [5:30]
Berlin Philharmoniker
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, April 2002

 


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