This is a very sensible and straight re-coupling of previously released recordings. I am an absolute sucker for a good orchestral arrangement so I had been very tempted by their earlier incarnations but wasn’t sure my shelves could cope with another La Mer
no matter how fine. Simply shorn of those original couplings and presented with a significant price advantage in a slim-line dual CD case this is now irresistible. I cannot speak too highly of Colin Matthews’ arrangements. But they really are so much more than arrangements even though they are described as such on the CDs themselves. Debussy is a composer who has appealed to arrangers pretty much since the moment he wrote the music originally. Think of the skilful work by André Caplet, as a single instance, on Debussy’s Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, La Boîte à joujoux. and Clair de lune. But Caplet’s remit seems to have been to mimic Debussy. Matthews’ brilliance, and this is why these should be treated as a major cycle of orchestral works, is that he has absorbed the essence of Debussy utterly yet refashioned it into something that is both modern and personal. Time and time again I was struck by how contemporary – in the best sense – much of this music sounds. The quietly revolutionary side of Debussy is laid bare for all to hear. No, Matthews has not stuck slavishly to every little harmonic implication in the original, and there are times where the full orchestra cannot copy every pianistic effect but in essence this is Debussy although perceived from a 21st
The Hallé commissioned this project in 2001 and the last to be recorded – Des pas sur la neige [CD2 track 3 – a remarkable piece in the original and quite brilliantly realised here] – was put down in May 2008. Even allowing for no doubt numerous diversions and other projects this is an extended time-frame and reflects the real care taken. Just looking at the piano originals makes it clear what a major undertaking this was. Gerald Larner has contributed an excellent liner note which throws light on some of Matthews’ musical adjustments and choices. So thoroughly pianistic are these works both technically and musically that even contemplating an orchestral version would seem absurd. Great credit for the success must go to mark Elder and his excellent Hallé players too. Rhythmic freedom and natural rubato are key to the Debussy style and the orchestra demonstrate this superbly. I do not intend to comment individually on all twenty four preludes. Personally I enjoyed the most those that develop and extend the elusive atmosphere of the originals. These play to the strength of the full orchestra and give the music a palette that a piano alone cannot emulate. The very opening of disc 1 Brouillards is very very fine indeed; superbly layered sounds from the orchestra brilliantly captured in demonstration sound by producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon. The balancing and voicing of the brass throughout is perfection – in part because their parts have been so well conceived but also because the actual playing is a model of subtle control and skill. Matthews’ use of percussion and harp to create a harmonic halo around the chords is brilliant. The preludes which emphasise characterisation over atmosphere have never interested me as much but even they tickle the ear when illuminated with as much orchestral colour as here. Of course, part of Matthews’ skill is to lead the ear to key elements of the harmony by his choice of instruments. I like the way he uses the contra-bassoon in Minstrels [track 3] and the saxophone in Général Lavine – excentric
[CD1 track 7] – there’s a Françaix-esque wit to it that is quite charming. The Hallé strings are on top sensuous form as well – has the opening to Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir ever beguiled as it does here?
As an example of orchestral virtuosity by both composer – I can’t call him the arranger any more – and players this is the finest disc I have heard so far this year and one that will give continuing pleasure over many repeated listenings. My slightest tiniest little question mark is why for this re-release the original order of Debussy’s music was not restored. Because the original discs were recorded about a year apart each disc shared six preludes from the two books. Within this re-ordering there is a good mix of style and mood but I would liked to have had the current order explained. Matthews is far too fastidious for there not to be an underlying structure to the sequence as presented. Most obviously it allows the second disc to end with the largest and most imposing prelude – La cathédrale engloutie.
The first disc also ends with one of the most famous from the set; La fille aux cheveux de lin
. Matthews scores this for just harp and strings and by indicating a tempo far slower than originally intended gives it a weight and a scale far removed from the original. Is there by any chance a deliberate homage to the Mahler Symphony No.5 Adagio
– scored for the same forces? I particularly like the way the famous opening of this piece is allowed to steal in Nimrod
-like from the end of the previous prelude.
The second disc is produced by Matthews himself and he does as fine a job as Andrew Keener the previous year. For sheer beauty of orchestral sound try the magical sounds of Des pas sure la neige
[CD2 track 3] – another movement that shows how revolutionary Debussy was in his handling of harmony and anti-romantic musical stasis. At the risk of repeating myself I cannot stress how well Mark Elder and his players sustain these fluid yet hanging lines – all too often this music can stagnate; there needs to be motion in the stillness if this does sound too oxymoronic. This might sound like an odd thing to say, and contradictory to boot – but were
this an original piano version it would be up there with the best and most revelatory. As mentioned previously the set of 24 original preludes are completed by La cathédrale engloutie
[CD2 track 12]. This makes for interesting comparison with Stokowski’s thrillingly cinematic version – the impression one gains from the two versions is quite different – Stokowski; epic grandiose and undeniably visceral in its excitement – particularly when heard in the Eric Kunzel/Cincinatti Pops version on Telarc. In contrast Matthews’ vision is more solemn, more atmospheric and ultimately truer to the original conception. Larner perceptively puts his finger on the difference – in Matthews’ vision the cathedral remains a hazy mirage on the edge of perception, for Stokowski it becomes an edifice of granitic reality. Again little careful touches in the orchestration pay dividends; Matthews uses real bells not tubular bells, or the opening rising chords doubled on harp and vibraphone over high sustained strings which is instantly evocative of some watery mystery. I don’t know if the Hallé always plays with the violins split left and right but the effect here works wonderfully conjuring up some vast horizon. There’s a moment at 2:53 where the high string melody is supported by a glockenspiel which suddenly sounded just like part of Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring.
The similarity had never occurred to me before. Listen to the glorious deep notes from the tuba and contra-bassoon at 3:07 over which the chant-like melody is played with majestic power – the Hallé brass in imperious form one last time. The discs are completed by Matthews’ own prelude ‘in the style of….’ named Postlude: Monsieur Croche
. This was the nom-de-plume Debussy used when working as a critic. A gem of a little piece in its own right this goes way beyond simple pastiche and would be a worthy concert curtain-raiser in its own right.
A delight to listen to this set which transcends any criticism or comment except that of gratitude and admiration – a triumph for all concerned and a certain shoe-in for one of my discs of the year.
And a further review… by Rob Barnett
The appearance of this set caught me by surprise. The Hallé
and Elder have issued all these Colin Matthews arrangements
before across two CDs. Each volume was fleshed out with other
Debussy works – La Mer on Vol. 1 and Jeux on Vol.
2 - bringing us closer to expected playing times. After John
Quinn’s and Brian
Briggs’ reviews I was not going to forget these discs. I
assumed that they would settle into an honourable place in the
catalogue and that would be that. Nothing of the sort! Repackaged
and shorn of those other works the Hallé label now give us the
complete Préludes in the sequence intended by the arranger or
I should say ‘re-imaginer’; these are not always ‘straight’
arrangements. Each benefits from diaphanous scoring by Colin
Matthews produced over a five year period.
Brouillards sounds like shimmering fog-bound film music.
The trumpets are too assertive to be completely convincing in
this context; a minor criticism. Ce qu'a vu has that
authentic Debussy sound, breathing rich air and then momentarily
thin and attenuated, slow and then hurried. It has been very
closely recorded with plenty of bite to go with the satin veils.
Canope is warmly bathed. Les sons et les parfums
is sighingly sensuous and somnolent. La Puerta with its
Iberian atmosphere was inspired by a postcard sent to Debussy
by de Falla. Minstrels and General Lavine tie
in with popular culture in the form of blacked-up street entertainers
on the streets of Eastbourne where Debussy wrote La Mer
and in the latter a dreamy music-hall entertainer – the American
clown, Edward Lavine with some especially bitter plain chocolate
trumpets. Feuille mortes is fittingly spare and dry.
Tierce alternées (alternating thirds) is set delightfully
a-flutter. La danse de Puck features Oberon who is suggested
by a resinous horn. It is a miniature tone poem of impressionistic
gauze akin to William Baines’ Thoughtdrift and Isle
of the Fey – when will these impressionistic miniatures
be recorded? Le vent is playful yet feels dangerous.
La fille aux cheveux de lin and its predecessor are the
most radical of re-imaginings of the originals. The result is
fey and barely breathed. This music is played so quietly that
the violin’s final super-thinned line is at the expense of an
uninterrupted thread of sound.
We turn now to the second disc. Danseuses de Delphes is
part ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and part Palm Court effete. La
sérénade interrompue picks up again on the Iberian atmospherics.
Des pas sur la neige is redolent of the desolation of
the childhood snow-scenes depicted by Bernard Herrmann in Citizen
Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Les fées sont
d'exquises danseuses again has a yearning and melting tender
Hispanic impressionism about it. Voiles is a subtle study
in 'floating whole tones'. Hommage à S Pickwick Esq is
complete with a portentously ponderous part veiled reference
to the British National Anthem but is also sensitive to Pickwick's
amorous proclivities. La Terrasse plays with a fragile
interaction of moonlit ideas and playful themes. Bruyères
is a tender reflection with a feint hint of the Celtic.
You also hear the most ardently romantic and frankly unfolded
of statements. There’s more delicate fairy stuff in Ondine
which was inspired by an Arthur Rackham illustration. Les
Collines is half impressionistic suggestion and half exultant
celebration - a sort of Italian counterpart to Chabrier's España.
Feux d'artifice is a dazzling display-piece with some
superb colouration and a hint of Respighi's horns. The last
prelude is La Cathèdrale Engloutie with its impressionistic
image of the sunken Celtic-Breton city of d'Ys. The bell is
very fully rendered rather than hazily suggested. I am not quite
sure this is a telling as it could be. At 8.28 it is the longest
piece here. Plangency and undersea shadows are well put across
and the piece ends in a shimmer of violins and the decay of
a bell chord.
Finally comes Postlude - Monsieur Croche the name Debussy
took for himself when writing music criticism. It could easily
be an additional prelude with its atmospherically delicate impressionistic
fragility and finally a brazen Ravel-like conflagration.
All in all this makes for a wonderful addition to the Debussy
oeuvre enhanced with fine notes from Gerald Larner.
If you go to the Hallé site you will be able to read Colin Matthews’
own views on this project.
In 2000 there was a Finzi sequence of songs orchestrated by
latter day composers (Chandos). In large part it failed to catch
the Finzi orchestral voice - probably not intended to. In the
case of Finzi the job still awaits a sensitive and dedicated
mind … and how those songs cry out for orchestral backdrop!
In the present case Matthews, for me, catches the sound of Debussy
– the sound seemingly left to be discovered in the interstices
of the piano score.
a note from Colin Matthews
As the recipient of the most extraordinarily generous reviews
by Nick Barnard and Rob Barnett I'd like to take the opportunity
to thank them publicly, and to acknowledge the exceptional work
that Music Web International does in reviewing music, both recorded
and live, in such depth. At a time when music coverage is so
dominated by the attention given to the pop world it's very
heartening to see such enterprise and seriousness of purpose.
I'd also like, if I may, to say something about Nick Barnard's
comment, 'My slightest tiniest little question mark is why for
this re-release the original order of Debussy's music was not
restored'. Even expressed so diffidently, this does demand an
answer, which perhaps should have been included in the liner
notes. There are several reasons, the first being the practical
one that, when the first 'book' was recorded in July 2006 (Hallé
HLL 7513), a handful of preludes was still incomplete - the
performance of the last group, including La Cathédrale,
didn't take place until May 2007.
Consequently it would have been impossible to have recorded
Debussy's Book 1 in order, and as all the preludes had been
first performed by the Hallé in discrete groups, usually
of three or four at a time with no relation to Debussy's ordering,
the obvious solution was to create an artificial 'Book 1', to
be followed by a similarly contrived Book 2. When it was decided
earlier this year to release them all together, naturally I
gave some thought as to whether or not Debussy's order should
be restored. But I felt that this difference of order established
the orchestral version as a separate work from the original;
and in particular that the preludes I had chosen to end each
of 'my' books both had the necessary weight to conclude each
section. Debussy's choices are characteristically offbeat.
The ordering was, of course very carefully chosen, in terms
of key, tempo and mood. But there was another factor that made
me very reluctant to disturb the existing ordering - in Book
1 I had, as Nick Barnard notes, joined Le vent dans la plaine
to La fille aux cheveux de lin; and in Book 2 I had similarly
linked Des pas sur la neige and Les fées sont d'exquises
danseuses (both pairs had been performed this way in their original
groups). I didn't want to disturb these pairings. Of course
anyone is free to restore Debussy's order to the CDs if they
wish; and I certainly have no proprietorial concerns should
anyone wish to perform them in that order, or an alternative
order of their own choice.
One point even tinier than Nick's : there isn't a vibraphone
at the beginning of La Cathédrale, it's a celesta. I
confined myself to instruments that Debussy used or could have
used, and much as I would have liked to use a vibraphone in
several places, I decided it was off limits. My only illicit
instruments are alto flute (Ravel's property rather than Debussy's!),
optional contrabass clarinet, and sizzle cymbal.