I’ve been slow to catch up with this Naxos series of Debussy’s
orchestral works. The response to the earlier releases from
other reviewers has been so mixed that I was very pleased to
have the opportunity to judge this fifth volume for myself.
Would I react like Bob Briggs, who was underwhelmed by the first
volume, though he thought it worth having overall – see review
– or like Kevin Sutton, who was more impressed, without quite
going overboard – see review
– or would I side with reviewers elsewhere who have been both
more and less positive? The dichotomy is illustrated by the
high praise afforded Volumes 3 and 4 in one magazine where another
reviewer had been critical of Volumes 1 and 2.
Volume 5 opens with the Debussy/Caplet orchestration of La
boîte à joujoux. On this showing, the owner of the box of
toys seems to have been a somewhat serious child: despite the
delicacy of the playing, the music didn’t quite catch fire for
me in the same way that it does with Yan Pascal Tortelier and
the Ulster Orchestra on a 4-CD budget-price set of Debussy’s
Orchestral Works (CHAN10144X). It’s significant that the complete
work takes more than two minutes longer than in Tortelier’s
hands with the Prelude alone from Märkl taking 2:43 against
It’s not just a matter of tempi, however: the work simply sounds
more magical in Tortelier’s recording – it was, after all, conceived
as a ballet for children, with Debussy’s own daughter Chouchou
as much in mind as in the earlier Children’s Corner.
Simon Rattle’s tempi (EMI 558041, with the Berlin Philharmonic)
fall between the two stools – overall he takes a minute longer
than Tortelier and a minute less than Märkl. Even in its slumbering
state in the Prélude, both the Chandos and EMI recordings
make the toy-box sound more magical than does the new Naxos.
Rattle’s multi-award-winning recording comes with enticing versions
of La Mer, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and some
shorter pieces. It’s still at full price but there’s a download
from passionato.com in mp3 or lossless sound – here
– which represents a saving, especially as it’s reduced to £5.99
(mp3)/£7.49 (lossless) at the time of writing. Passionato also
have the 5-CD set of Rattle’s Debussy and Ravel at an attractive
price (5145652 – here
– a blend of CBSO and BPO recordings). See review
by Ian Lace.
If you don’t wish to run to the complete Chandos box, Tortelier’s
la Boîte is available on a single album: it’s no longer
to be had on CD, but it can be downloaded in good mp3 for £6
or better lossless sound for £7.99 from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net.
It’s also available on a Debussy/Ravel download, even more inexpensively
– mp3 for £4.99, lossless for £7.99 – on CHAN8711.
(CD, again, no longer available: la Boîte with Ma
You can also sample Tortelier’s Debussy on a single budget CD,
An Introduction to Claude Debussy – Children’s Corner,
L’après-midi d’un faune, Petite suite; la plus
que lente, L’isle joyeuse and La mer – on
CHAN2024 – see review.
L’isle joyeuse in Tortelier’s hands takes 6:19; the same
Molinari orchestration takes 6:59 with Märkl, which I think
makes the isle less joyeuse than it might be. Performances
of the piano original of l’isle joyeuse are faster still
than Tortelier: they range from 4:55 (Gieseking/EMI) via 5:07
(Haas/Philips), 5:41 (Pollini/DGG), 5:47 (Trpceski/EMI), 6:05
(Pommier) to 6:06 (Kocsis).
I used my review of the Introduction to praise the whole
Tortelier set, but never got round to a full review: I hope
to include that in one of my forthcoming Download Roundups,
together with the Rattle recording.
The Epigraphes antiques fare much better than the other
works on the new Naxos recording, with echoes of the legend
of Bilitis on which they are based, and the Estampes
sound genuinely exotic. I don’t remember having heard the fragmentary
Triomphe de Bacchus before, but it makes an attractive closing
item. As performed here, it deserves to be heard more often.
The recording throughout is bright and transparent – perhaps
a little too transparent: I could have wished for a more solid
body of sound at times. Though I was not seriously troubled
by it, I much prefer the Chandos recording of Tortelier and
the EMI of Rattle.
Volume 5 of Märkl’s Debussy is pretty mixed but I hesitate to
reject it outright. I warmed to a second hearing of La Boîte
a little more than to the first, so this may be a matter of
letting the performance bed down, though I still preferred Tortelier
by quite a margin. I should also say that I have read two reviews
which praised both the performances and recording, which means
that personal taste clearly comes into play here, as so often.
How many times have you read a rave write-up from one reviewer
only to find the same performance castigated by another?
Perhaps my best advice would be to try to hear La Boîte à
joujoux before purchase if possible: subscribers to the
Naxos Music Library would be well placed to do just that. I
note that Volume 6 is due to be issued in May 2011 – 8.572583
including my favourite neglected Debussy, Büsser’s orchestration
of Printemps. I was able to check that out via the Naxos
Music Library a month before release – a useful feature of NML.
This time Märkl’s tempi are more appropriate – overall, he’s
even faster than Dutoit on Decca and Martinon on EMI (both in
budget-price 2-CD sets) – and the performance more amenable
to my ears than most of Volume 5. Watch out for a review of
Volume 6 in a future Download Roundup.
see also review by Nick