Now this really is a competitive field; we already have sets
of Debussy’s orchestral music from Jean Martinon (EMI),
Ernest Ansermet (Decca), Bernard Haitink (Philips) and Jun Mārkl
(Naxos). The first three are deserving classics, and the fourth
- a 9-CD box that includes music orchestrated and arranged by
other hands - has some good things in it (review).
I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing a high-resolution
download from Universal/Linn of Ansermet’s Debussy; I
marvelled at his way with this music, and at the skill of Decca’s
engineers and re-mastering team (review).
Stéphane Denève hasn't made much of an impact
on me, although I do admire his recording of pieces by Guillaume
Connesson (Chandos CHSA 5076). From that it’s clear this
conductor has a strong, even forceful, musical style that may
not make him an obvious choice for Debussy. As for the RSNO,
they’re in fine fettle at the moment, their collection
of Saint-Saëns - with Neeme Jārvi - very welcome indeed
Given the hype surrounding M. Denève I approached his
Debussy with some caution. For quick reference I dug out Haitink,
Ansermet and Mārkl and pressed play.
The first disc opens with Images, of which the lovely
‘Gigues’ gets a strong, no-nonsense reading.
The sound is reasonably detailed and weighty although - in stereo
at least - it strikes me as a trifle ‘flat’ compared
with other recordings from this team and venue. By contrast
Haitink is much more upfront, and his control of dynamics is
more subtle and intuitive. As for the RSNO, they play very well;
in fact, they’re every bit as poised and polished as their
Dutch counterparts. The first part of ‘Ibéria’
is especially fine, the perfumed night of the second warm and
sensuous. The rocking rhythms of the third, ‘Le matin
d’un jour de la fête’, are nicely sprung -
I love those gentle bells - and ‘Rondes de Printemps’
is immaculately done.
Everything is in its place, so why do I feel so disengaged?
Listening to Haitink I had my answer: for all his technical
prowess Denève lacks the Dutchman’s fine shading
and his remarkable ear for Debussian textures. Few composers
beckon one into their sound-world as seductively as Debussy,
and it’s that sense of complete surrender I miss in Denève’s
otherwise impressive Images. That said, Jeux starts
well enough - the playing is very nimble and precise - but it’s
not long before I’m wool-gathering again. A quick comparison
with Ansermet and Haitink just confirms Denève’s
cool proficiency at the expense of essential wit and warmth.
This is most disconcerting, especially when the playing is of
such quality. Just sample Nocturnes and I doubt you’ll
hear more seamless and elegant performances of these pieces
anywhere. Denève shapes ‘Sirènes’
beautifully, and the women’s chorus is ideally distant
and most atmospherically recorded. This really is gorgeous;
now if only one could marry this orchestra and singers with
Haitink’s unaffected musicianship this would be a truly
splendid set of Nocturnes.
The second CD begins with La mer, one of Debussy’s
most astonishing creations. As ever Denève is up against
stiff competition here, not least from Ansermet and, more recently,
Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (review).
The latter - helped by a top-notch Super Audio recording - really
brings out the shimmer and sparkle of this piece. Ansermet is
only slightly less beguiling, and as good as the vintage Decca
sound is Chandos do the composer proud. I just wish I could
say the same about Denève; his meticulous attention to
detail is impressive, but what should be a complex, living seascape
remains stubbornly one-dimensional.
The Prélude à l'aprês-midi d'un faune
was one of the least appealing items in Märkl’s big
box; unlovely and unsubtle it’s an object lesson in how
not to play this miraculous piece. Even though I’m not
a great admirer of Herbert von Karajan his first DG recording
of the Prélude is Desert Island fare. Ansermet
isn’t far behind, the detail of that high-res download
making it seem every bit the seminal 20th-century
work it is. Both conductors shape and project the music superbly,
each revealing a sure sense of its structure. By contrast Denève’s
Prélude is surprisingly recessed, much of the
finer detail lost in the orchestral murk. The broad brush-strokes
are clear enough, but ultimately it’s all too contrived.
Actually that's a pretty good description of Denève’s
Debussy as a whole, a criticism that one could hardly level
at Martinon, Haitink or Ansermet. He’s not alone in this,
for I find Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich (Naxos) is similarly
proficient yet lacking in substance and insight. Denève’s
Marche écossaise is crisp and clear-eyed, while
Printemps - in Henri Büsser’s orchestration
- is at once sumptuous and delicately scored. It’s full
of ear-pricking touches, yet it’s oddly uninvolving. Ditto
the two movements from L'Enfant prodigue, the
‘Air de danse’light but ultimately charmless.
Comparing Haitink’s and Denève’s Berceuse
héroïque might tilt the balance in the latter’s
favour but not by much. The Frenchman certainly has the better
recording and he does coax fine sounds from his players. Regrettably
I can’t say more than that, as the end result is inexplicably
bland. Which isn’t unexpected after more than two hours
of the most uncommunicative Debussy I’ve heard in ages.
Even this SACD isn’t up to the usual standards of the
house; the Prélude is especially opaque.
Outwardly brilliant, inwardly dull. Perplexing.
see also reviews by Dominy
Clements (June 2012 Recording of the Month)
Thompson (July 2012 Recording of the Month)
Masterwork Index: La