Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La mer, three symphonic sketches (1905) [24:41]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Mother Goose, five pieces for children (1912) [15:44]
La Valse (1920) [13:11]
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. 20 May 2010, Seoul Arts Centre, Seoul. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 476 449-8 [54:11]

This disc presents some classics of the French orchestral repertoire played by an orchestra few will have heard - or heard of, the Seoul Philharmonic.

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 pays off.

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.

Guy Aron

If you are looking for a La Mer and Mother Goose in a modern recording, this will not disappoint.