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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
An Introduction to Claude Debussy
Children’s Corner (1906-8), (orch. André Caplet, 1910) [17:16]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, after Stéphane Mallarmé (1894) [9:19] 
Petite suite (1889) (orch. Henri Büsser, 1907) [13:01]
La plus que lente (1909)** [5:25]
L’Isle joyeuse (1903) (orch. Bernardino Molinari, 1916) [6:19]
Clair de lune (1890) (orch.André Caplet) [4:19] 
La Mer: Three symphonic sketches (1903-5) [22:11]
Colin Fleming (solo flute); ** Derek Bell (solo cimbalom)
Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec. no details given - (P) 1989-93. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN2024 [77:52]
Experience Classicsonline

If asked to sit down and make a note of everything you would like to see in an introduction to Debussy, filling an 80-minute CD as nearly as possible, most people would come up with a list substantially the same as we have here. I certainly would, especially if told that the recordings should also illustrate the strengths of Chandos’s near-complete 4-CD set of the orchestral music with the Ulster Orchestra and Yan-Pascal Tortelier (CHAN10144X). 
 
Probably I’d have dropped some of the shorter pieces in order to include the too-little-known minor masterpiece Printemps, though Tortelier’s performance of that work still leaves me missing something of what I found in Munch’s recording from which, in its incarnation on the RCA Victrola label, I first discovered it.  The Munch is currently unavailable but a strong candidate for reissue: RCA please note.  In order to fit in Printemps, you’d need to drop Children’s Corner or all three of the shortest works, including Clair de Lune, which many would name as their most archetypal Debussy work.
 
You can’t fit what I would call the essential Debussy orchestral works on one CD – where are Jeux, Images and Nocturnes, for example?  You’d need two CDs to fit them in.  There are some good 2-CD sets of Debussy, but I can’t think of one which quite combines all these works.  Volume 1 of Martinon’s two Gemini 2-CD sets of Debussy comes closest (3 65235 2 – see review by PSh of this ‘amazing bargain’).
 
Completing the information at the head of the review serves as a reminder of how many of Debussy’s best-known ‘orchestral works’ were actually orchestrated by others, not least by his friend André Caplet, a very decent composer in his own right and someone closely in touch with the Debussy idiom.  Turning from the orchestrated Children’s Corner which opens this CD to the piano original is rather like the transition from Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures from an Exhibition – why do the BBC and record companies keep getting the title of that work wrong? – to Mussorgsky’s piano original.  I, for one, have simply become too accustomed to the orchestration to listen with much enjoyment to the original. 
 
I haven’t yet heard Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s recording of Children’s Corner (CHAN10467); perhaps that might change my mind, though I note that DM was not as bowled over by this recording as some other reviewers were – see review.  In any event, the orchestrated version of this light-hearted, but by no means light-weight, music makes an excellent opening to an enjoyable CD, just as la Mer makes an ideal close.
 
Caplet features again as the very able orchestrator of Clair de Lune – again, the orchestration is the version most people will know – and Büsser’s version of Petite Suite is equally authoritative, while Molinari’s Isle joyeuse is not far behind.
 
Recently the Hallé, on their own label, have offered some of Colin Matthews’ arrangements of other Debussy piano works (CDHLL7513).  Perhaps future generations will come to regard those versions as authoritative, as we have come to regard Caplet’s Children’s Corner.  Those that I have heard were very convincing – not quite in the same league as Caplet or Büsser – and that Hallé recording well worth considering.  (See also IL’s recent review of Three Preludes orchestrated by Matthews on a super-budget 5-CD set of Debussy and Ravel from the CBSO and Simon Rattle, EMI 5 14565 2.)
 
Whether orchestrated by Debussy himself or by others, all the music on this recording is very well performed.  My own preference for the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune might be for a little more magic – more languor in the more languorous moments, such as Serge Baudo achieves with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra: his slightly more leisurely time of 9:30 against Tortelier’s 9:19 pays dividends, but it’s not much use telling you that when his Czech Phil recordings of Debussy are unavailable.  Supraphon really ought to restore them a.s.a.p.; the part-LPO/Baudo, part-LSO/Previn Debussy programme on Classics for Pleasure (5 86167 2) is only partial consolation for their absence.
 
Not that I want l’Après-midi to be too slow, as all too many conductors are inclined to take it: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos with the LSO on an otherwise very recommendable super-budget Regis CD (RRC1177, formerly Pickwick) is just too slow – almost two minutes slower than Tortelier.  Rattle, on the 5-CD set referred to, comes in between them at 10:17.
 
In La Mer, too, most conductors are inclined to slightly slower speeds than Tortelier: Frühbeck de Burgos and Rattle both give the music a little more time to breathe.  Much as I enjoyed hearing Frühbeck de Burgos’s account of this work, Tortelier offers that little bit more energy without ever sounding rushed.  The Regis CD, offering La Mer, Nocturnes and l’Après-midi, might be regarded as a low-price competitor for this Chandos CD but it’s not such good value (just 58:37 against Chandos’s 77:52) and, with these rather extreme tempi, best regarded as an alternative view for the seasoned Debussy-lover rather than as an introduction.
 
You won’t find any of those extremes with Tortelier and, though you wouldn’t think of the Ulster Orchestra as natural Debussy players, they are for Tortelier.  Add good quality recording and you should have a winner, as indeed you have if this is the only Debussy that you want.
 
Like all the Introduction to ... series, this recording is available on a budget-price CD and as mp3 or lossless download.  I sampled downloads of the whole 4-CD set from which these recordings were taken, partly in mp3 and partly in wma format.  The mp3 recordings, at 320k, are very good; the wma versions fully the equal of CD quality - to be honest, the mp3s are so good that I can’t now remember which was which.  If you are planning to purchase the whole set, the savings obtained by downloading are probably worthwhile; if you just want the sampler, there’s very little advantage. 
 
Downloaders – and even non-purchasers – have access to the programme notes, which are good enough to put most budget-price recordings to shame.  The cover is very attractive, too.
 
Why no accolade?  For the simple reason that, having heard this introductory CD, you’ll probably want to go right out and buy the complete 4-CD set: there isn’t a single dud performance in this introduction or in that whole set, even given my earlier reservations about Printemps, and the recording quality is as good throughout as it is on this sampler CD.  You should be able to find that complete set for around £25 in the UK, which makes it excellent value.
 
Then, having got to know the orchestral Debussy, you ought to move on to his String Quartet.  My loyalty to the classic Quartetto Italiano version is unshaken (Philips 50, 464 699 2) but I know that many would regard the Belcea Quartet’s less expensive version as the one to go for – and you get Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit thrown in, as well as the Ravel Quartet which is common to both recordings.  CC unhesitatingly recommended this Belcea version (EMI Début 5 74020 2) – see review – and it went on to win a Gramophone award.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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