Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
La boîte à joujoux (orch. Claude Debussy and André Caplet) [32:44]
Six épigraphes antiques (orch. Ernest Ansermet) [17:54]
Estampes No. 1: Pagodes (orch. André Caplet) [5:37]
Estampes No. 2: La soirée dans Grenade (orch. Paul-Henri Büsser) [5:54]
L’isle joyeuse (orch. Bernardino molinari) [6:56]
Le triomphe de Bacchus (orch. and arr. Marius-François Gaillard) [3:38]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, 27–28 March 2009, 11–14 January 2010, 24–27 February 2010. DDD.
NAXOS 8.572568 [73:04]

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 Tortelier’s 2:16.

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 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 (CHAN7017). 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 Mère l’Oye).

You can also sample Tortelier’s Debussy on a single budget CD, An Introduction to Claude DebussyChildren’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.

Brian Wilson

Slow tempi and a too-serious box of toys preclude my recommendation, but others may – and do – disagree.

see also review by Nick Barnard