This disc presents some classics of the French orchestral repertoire
played by an orchestra few will have heard - or heard of, the
Debussy’s La mer is one of his most successful orchestral
works, and seems to be more popular than the Nocturnes of
1897-99 and the Images of about ten years later. Debussy’s music
usually proceeds by continuous waxing and waning of intensity,
and this method naturally lends itself to the evocation of a
seascape. The work is based on thematic fragments, often using
the pentatonic or whole-tone scales, which are extensively elaborated.
Debussy’s orchestration is original as well, using sections
of the orchestra opposed to each other in blocks, alternating
with expressive solos. There are a few surprising echoes of
Sibelius in this work, particularly in the horn writing: both
composers connected with nature in a way that went way beyond
the sentimental and the picturesque.
Chung takes quite a gradual approach in From dawn to midday;
at first hearing I thought it a little cautious. The second
time I played it at a higher volume and it seemed to come together
more. The tendrils of sound at the opening grow inexorably,
and the woodwinds in the mid-section have warmth without sounding
“spotlit”. The timpani have good presence in the tuttis, which
are just a little on the dry side. The brass solos are excellent
in Jeux de vagues, which mounts to an exciting climax.
The performance really takes off in Dialogue du vent et de
la mer, which builds quite a bit of tension. The violins’
long inverted pedal passage has an icy quality, and the chorale-like
brass passages are very well played and reproduced. Chung takes
very much the long view in this work, and his strategic approach
John Barbirolli recorded La mer in the late 1950s with
the Hallé Orchestra. Although he was better known for performances
of Mahler, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, he sounds very much at
home in French repertoire as well. Certainly the recording is
extremely vivid, with resonant harp sound, and a generally much
closer sound-picture than the Chung. Barbirolli’s approach is
characteristically romantic, and he brings a great deal of warmth
and excitement. Only the lack of bass extension at the tuttis
betrays the age of the recording.
Ravel’s Mother Goose originates in a suite for piano
duet written in 1910. The title was taken from a collection
of fairy tales, and suggests that the work was intended for
children. Ravel produced an orchestral version the following
year, and expanded it into a ballet score in 1912. Although
Mother Goose was written not long after La Mer,
it sounds totally different. Ravel uses more melodies of more
conventional length than Debussy, often given to solo woodwinds
or strings. Ravel’s evocation of childhood has episodes that
are grotesque as well as playful, but for the most part Mother
Goose is a work of tenderness and nostalgia.
The Seoul woodwinds are again impressive, playing their solos
with sensitivity; their interplay with the violins in Petit
poucet is quite beautiful. The bird-calls and the faux-Oriental
writing in Laideronette is vividly done. The closing
Jardin feérique opens gravely, rising to an ecstatic
climax at the final cadence. Mention should be made of the violin
solos too, which are ardent and perfectly in tune. Chung shapes
the melodies carefully, and does not drive the music too hard.
This is an accomplished and charming performance of Mother
Goose that gives the section leaders a chance to shine.
The disc concludes with La valse, a work that I personally
think sounds a bit blowsy and trashy after Mother Goose,
but which is here given a rendition that captures its glitter
and hysteria most effectively. Both Ravel works were recorded
in front of an audience, something that I feel gives them a
slight edge over the Debussy. The recording itself is very natural;
the bass drum in La valse has a convincing thud. There
is a little dryness that probably reflects the acoustic of the
Seoul Arts Centre.
Barbirolli includes Mother Goose and La Valse with
La Mer on a disc that forms part of the 10CD set entitled
Sir John Barbirolli: the great EMI recordings (EMI Classics
50999 40577670204). Mother Goose is affectionately phrased,
with again a closer recording than the Seoul performance. The
disc also includes the Daphnis and Chloé Suite no. 2.
Collectors who are looking for a La Mer and Mother
Goose coupling with modern recorded sound will be rewarded
for taking a punt on the Seoul Philharmonic. This recording
may not displace classic readings such as Karajan’s or Reiner’s,
but it is extremely competent. The playing is precise and responsive,
and the woodwinds and brass are excellent; only the string section
lacks the richness of a really top ensemble such as the Berlin
or Vienna Philharmonics.