A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to review
the companion release in which Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé recorded half of Colin Matthews’ orchestrations of Debussy’s Préludes
for piano. I was very taken indeed with that disc so I’m delighted that the remainder of the set has come my way for appraisal.
On the previous disc Elder gave us a splendid account of La Mer
. Here, he adds to the Préludes
another of Debussy’s major orchestral works in the shape of Jeux
, the ballet score that he composed for Diaghilev and which was premièred, under the baton of Pierre Monteux, only a matter of weeks before Diaghilev staged the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps
, also conducted by Monteux. I must admit that, much though I love and admire Debussy’s music, I’ve always found Jeux
a somewhat tough nut to crack. It’s not that the musical language is inaccessible but the music is so subtle and elusive.
receives an extremely fine performance. Elder and his orchestra play it with great finesse and sensitivity. There’s tremendous precision to the playing and the orchestral colouring, which so often seems to be in pastel shades, is beautifully shaded. There’s so much to admire here, including diaphanous strings – sample the violins between 6:00 and 6:21 – and a great deal of deft and nimble playing by the woodwind section. Debussy’s score is packed with tiny details and Elder seems to bring out so many of these but never by artificially highlighting anything. Overall, it’s a highly persuasive and very skilful account of the score and in it we can hear the fruits of the excellent work that Elder has been doing with the Hallé. The response of the players also seems to indicate that there’s a high degree of musical empathy between them and their conductor. It helps, I’m sure, that the recording is beautifully engineered but right now I can’t recall a recorded performance that I’ve enjoyed or admired more.
The orchestration of the twenty-four piano Préludes
, commissioned in 2001 by Elder and the Hallé, was a five-year project. In reviewing the recording of the first half of the set I commented that Colin Matthews had produced “what I’d call a creative re-imagining of the pieces. He’s been faithful to the spirit of the music but has held it up for us to admire as if in a new light.” That statement is just as true of the remainder of the set. Readers who are not already familiar with this project should note two things. Firstly, these orchestrations are not literal note-by-note transcriptions; in particular, as Gerald Larner points out in his very helpful booklet note, Matthews has not been afraid to modify Debussy’s original texts on occasion. I don’t believe these modifications are huge – a couple of bars added here and there, for example - and they’ve always been done in the interests of making musical sense of the orchestrated version. Secondly, as Colin Matthews himself kindly pointed out to me after my first review had appeared, it was never his intention that the orchestrations should be played in the same order in which they were published – though this is feasible, if desired. He told me that the ordering of the twelve orchestrations on the first CD was quite deliberate and I presume that the same applies to this disc also.
The first set of orchestrations struck me as being uncommonly successful and I feel the same about this present collection. I should say that I’m not a pianist and so, though I’m familiar with the piano originals as a listener, I don’t know the music from the inside as a player and so, essentially, I’m judging these pieces as orchestral music.
Among the highlights for me was La Sérénade interrompue.
Here, clothed in orchestral dress, the link between the piece and Iberia
seems even stronger. Debussy and Matthews suggest a sunny Spanish location most effectively. Des pas sur la neige
is another success, I think. Gerald Larner points out that the orchestra enjoys an advantage here over a solo pianist. That’s true though one loses, perhaps, a little of the spare, glacial textures that the solo instrument can bring to the music. However, it’s a clear case of swings and roundabouts for the different colourings that an orchestra can deploy evoke a still, chilly landscape in a very different but wholly convincing way.
In Le terrasse des audiences du clair de la lune
Colin Matthews uses the horns most imaginatively. His orchestration evokes an elusive nocturnal scene – this is a velvet night, one feels. Bruyères
, which follows offers another example of truly imaginative orchestration; this time it’s the deployment of solo strings that catches the ear. Gerald Larner says of the orchestration of Ondine
that it could almost be by Ravel and I don’t think the comparison is unrealistic. Matthews’s sophisticated scoring has genuine élan. Nor is Larner’s mention of Respighi when talking of Les collines d’Anacapri
unrealistic. Matthews’s canvas is colourful and evocative. Incidentally, he transposes this piece up from Debussy’s original key of B major to C major.
La cathédrale engloutie
is already familiar in an orchestration by Stokowski. I’m not going to pit one against the other; I’ll limit myself to saying that I find Colin Matthews’ treatment very successful. As Debussy does in the piano original, Matthews conveys mystery and, later on, grandeur. In an orchestral version a real bell can be used and it’s duly used here in a sensitive way. When Debussy evokes the pealing organ (from 3:01) the orchestral effect is imposing but, as Gerald Larner observes, Debussy’s music “is not so weighed down as to lose its illusory quality.” As the cathedral recedes beneath the surface once more (5:51) Matthews’ orchestral sonorities are very evocative and inventive.
But we’re not quite finished. The man who added Pluto
to The Planets
provides his own envoi
. Colin Matthews’s original piece, Postlude
: Monsieur Croche
, rounds off the proceedings in fine style. The title is explained by the nom de plume
that Debussy employed when working as a music critic. According to Gerald Larner, Matthews intended this little vignette as ‘part portrait of Debussy and part expression of exuberance and reflection on having completed the project.’ It’s a short, virtuoso piece, much of which is in fast tempo. It forms a brilliant little coda to the Préludes.
These orchestral re-imaginings of Debussy’s piano pieces are entertaining, intriguing and very satisfying. I greatly admire not just the imagination and flair with which they’ve been done but also the spirit in which Colin Matthews has carried out his work. Debussy’s miniature masterpieces emerge here in a new guise, one in which we can marvel not just at his genius but also at the work of Colin Matthews, a musician who has clearly steeped himself in Debussian style and who is equally clearly a master of the modern symphony orchestra.
I’m acutely conscious that I haven’t commented on the standard of the performances, which is very unfair. I can be brief. The playing is as first rate as was the case in Jeux
. Sir Mark Elder and his exemplary orchestra have served both Debussy and Colin Matthews very well indeed. Their superb playing is captured in excellent sound, which is detailed yet uses the revealing acoustics of the Bridgewater Hall to sympathetic effect. This disc is a worthy follow-up to the previous release in every way and I’ve enjoyed every minute of the time I’ve spent listening to it.
See also review by Bob Briggs