Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images pour Orchestre (1905-1912)*[35:55]
Jeux (1912-1913) [17:32]
Nocturnes - À Georges Hartmann (1897-1899)** [24:13]  
La mer - Trois Esquisses symphoniques (1903-1905) [23:58]
Prélude à l'aprês-midi d'un faune (1891-1894) [10:14]
Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (1890) [6:32]
Printemps - Suite symphonique (1887) [15:12]
Two movements fromL'Enfant prodigue - Scène lyrique (1884, rev. 1907-1908) [7:04]
Berceuse héroïque - pour rendre Hommage à S.M. le Roi Albert 1er de Belgique et à ses Soldats (1914) [4:34]
*Katherine MacKintosh (oboe d'amore); Katherine Bryan (flute)
**Women of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus/Timothy Dean;
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. 10-12 October 2011, 7-9 February 2012, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, UK
CHANDOS CHSA 5102 (2) [77:04 + 68:22]
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 (review). 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.
Dan Morgan  

Outwardly brilliant, inwardly dull. Perplexing. 

see also reviews by Dominy Clements (June 2012 Recording of the Month) and Simon Thompson (July 2012 Recording of the Month)

Masterwork Index: La mer