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Mikalojus ČIURLIONIS (1875-1911)
Symphonic poem - The Sea (1907) [29:20]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La Mer (1905) [24:48]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)

Fantasy for orchestra - The Sea (1889) [19:09]
The State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. venues not stated, 1971-1993

Experience Classicsonline

Were you to see the cover booklet placed the right way around in its jewel case, you would discover that this CD’s title is apparently "Mope". But don’t be alarmed – this isn’t 70-odd minutes of music aimed at manic depressives. The four letters of the word "Mope", it turns out, are actually in Cyrillic script (pronounced "mor-yeh") and form the Russian word for "the sea". In any case, I imagine that if you get to see this disc in your local dealer’s shop, he’ll have sensibly turned the booklet around so you’ll see its English language back cover instead – just as illustrated here.

In fact, the music encompasses a far, far wider range of moods than just moping. As composers have long realised, the sea - volatile, kaleidoscopic, ever-changing in its scale and its moods and, perhaps above all, intensely rhythmic - offers some wonderfully descriptive musical subject matter. "Sea music", as a result, can be hypnotic or terrifying, pulsating or becalmed, consoling or epic.

This CD puts together a neat programme showing how three composers, writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, chose to depict the same theme. And it turns out that they did so in markedly different ways.

The earliest of these pieces, Glazunov’s orchestral fantasy, is perhaps the least musically interesting. Even at the time of its composition, the composer’s mentor Rimsky-Korsakov considered it unoriginal and derivative. Glazunov’s own attached programme explains that the music depicts what is seen by a man looking out from the shore over a vast seascape: the woodwinds-driven first third and last third of the piece depict bright sunshine over a calm, gentle sea, sandwiching a middle section, dominated by brass and percussion, where the sky darkens, the wind picks up and a huge and violent tempest erupts. "And", writes Glazunov, "everything that the man had seen and all that he had felt in his soul, he recounted later to other men." Clearly, the words that I have italicised indicate that the composer at least intended to offer something rather more subjective and thoughtful than a merely literal depiction of the elements. But although he succeeds in creating an undoubtedly crowd-pleasing pseudo-Lisztian-Wagnerian sound picture, I am not sure that he manages much more than an episodic and relatively superficial treatment of his ambitious theme.

The central work of these three, speaking chronologically, is Debussy’s familiar La Mer, his first great orchestral masterpiece. Impressionistic rather than literal, it takes its inspiration from an eclectic mix of real-life seascapes (at, of all places, Eastbourne!), the composer’s holiday recollections and depictions by artists ranging from J.M.W. Turner to the Japanese ukiyo-e painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai. Most notably, La Mer presents a newly invented musical language for the depiction of the sea, completely eschewing the clichéd forms that had been utilised hitherto. Its taxing demands on conductors and their orchestras have made it a core part of the orchestral repertoire for the past century and it remains a tough test of both artistic integrity and technical skill.

Though the least known of the three composers on offer here, in many ways Čiurlionis is, while the most firmly set in his own era, also the most interesting. Remembered in his native Lithuania more as a painter than as a composer, he was one of those fin de siècle artists who were intent on exploring the links, if any, between music and colour (the most famous example was, of course, Scriabin who intended that performances of his Prometheus: The Poem of Fire should include an organ that produced appropriately coloured light rather than any sound). Thus Čiurlionis gave many of his paintings "musical" titles – sonata, prelude, fugue or whatever. As far as I am aware, however, there was no link to any painting – his own or any other artist’s – when he composed his symphonic poem The Sea. This is not a short work by any means but it is couched in musical language that will seem entirely familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of the Late Romantic repertoire. Richard Strauss, in particular, comes to mind a great deal. Čiurlionis’s musical idiom here is – no doubt entirely intentionally - rather like his paintings, of which I have located reproductions of about 40 or so. The art works are all what I might term broad brush, avoiding fine detail in favour of the "bigger picture" and often featuring broad, impressive (and occasionally utterly incomprehensible) vistas. The man’s music is likewise bold, sweeping and perhaps not terribly subtle. It is, nonetheless, a pleasurable discovery for devotees of this kind of thing.

Evgeny Svetlanov certainly seems well attuned to Čiurlionis’s style, giving a sweeping, magnificent (melodramatic?) account that probably makes more of the piece than it really deserves. As one might expect, his Glazunov is well worth hearing too, predictably more excitable – and exciting – than, say, Igor Golovchin’s account with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in Naxos’s series of Glazunov orchestral works (vol. 16, Naxos 8.553512).

So associated was Svetlanov with the music of his homeland that his accounts of non-Russian works can easily be overlooked. That would be a mistake: he frequently has interesting things to say about such late 19th century composers as Bruckner, Brahms and César Franck - and, moving on a few years, his Elgar symphony no.2 is pretty fine, too. This La Mer may lack the authentic "French" atmosphere that Roger Désormière or Charles Munch brought to it, but it has a dramatic sweep and character that is, in its own way and to my own ears at least, rather appealing.

The enthusiastic audiences at these live recordings stretching over more than 20 years were not always as well behaved in smothering coughs as they ought to have been. Maybe splicing the mainbrace with an appropriate tot or two of navy-issue rum would have helped solve the problem.

Rob Maynard





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