RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer [23:58]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [10:14]
Marche écossaise sur un theme populaire [6:32]
Two movements from L’Infant Prodigue [7:04]
Berceuse héroïque [4:34]
Women of the RSNO Chorus (Nocturnes)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 10-12 October 2011 and 7-9 February 2012
CHANDOS CHSA 5102(2) [78:04 + 68:22]
2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, and it also sees Stéphane Denève’s final year as music director the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. As a double commemoration, Denève and his orchestra have been performing Debussy’s major orchestral works in concert this season, and as a parting gift he leaves us this recording. It’s a present worth receiving, something which enshrines his love of the music but also stands as testament to the outstanding work he has done with the RSNO over the last seven years. It may well turn out to be one of the finest releases in this Debussy year, and possibly the finest in a considerably longer period.
Denève has long been a passionate advocate for Debussy. He writes in the liner-notes about the transformational effect of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which he first heard as a young man, something which sparked a love of this music which he still feels. That love comes out in every moment of this recording. The set comes across as a labour of love, a summation of Denève’s current thinking on Debussy and a document that, in my view, stands comparison with many more famous or well established Debussy teams out there. One of the things he does rather successfully, to my mind, is to challenge some established views about the composer. More often than not, Debussy’s music is seen as impressionistic (a term the composer hated), shimmering and ill-defined. The nebulous half-light is there in places and is used to outstanding effect at times, but Denève rejects any idea that with this must come poor definition or blended homogeneity. “Everything must be heard”, he writes, and one of his achievements here is to combine a forensic exploration of the notes in all their detail with a convincing architectural picture that gives the music coherence and a sense of trajectory. That openness and clarity are apparent right from the start of Images as the flute, clarinet, harp and celesta all stand out with razor-sharp clarity against the backdrop of icy strings. Denève doesn’t reject the post-Romantic sound-world in which the composer moves, however, and creates a sense of heady opulence that would please any sensualist. The opening of Ibéria then explodes out of the speakers with all the brash confidence of a Mediterranean fiesta, reminding us that Debussy is as good at evoking sun-drenched clarity as he is at moonlit mystery. As if to prove this, Les Parfums de la Nuit has a languid, almost decadent feel but each instrumental voice is clear and potent, relishing its due place in the overall scheme.
A similar grasp of compelling contrast comes across in the Nocturnes. The gently ambling clouds of Nuages sound almost anaemic but hugely atmospheric in the orchestra, and there is something wonderfully suggestive about the cor anglais solo towards the end. After this Fêtes is perky, rhythmic and celebratory, crowned by triumphant brass cadences, and the effect of the approach of the distant band is brilliantly played and paced. The world of the Sirens, too, is properly seductive, the ladies of the RSNO Chorus sliding evocatively through their chromatic lines and placed at just the right distance from the orchestra.
Denève is a master of the big picture as well as of the detailed components of this music. In fact, the image that kept coming to my mind when listening to these discs was of the conductor as an artist working on a canvas, crafting something organic which is taking shape before the listener rather than setting down something concrete and complete. Nowhere is this more true than in La Mer. The shading of the dynamic range is done in the way that a painter evokes light; a phrase will be highlighted or faded back with lightning precision, like a snatch of sunlight catching the glint of a wave. There is also a tremendous sense of movement and organic progress, a love of the momentary without losing sight of the overall scope of the music. The mid-day climax to the first movement, when it comes, is electrifying, all the more so because it has been so well prepared. The Dialogue captures a sense of yearning as well as of conflict, given a sense of almost transcendent resolution (around the 4:34 mark) then growing to a grandiose conclusion which sets the seal on the whole work. In fact, you always feel that Denève is bringing out the sense of structure inherent in the music rather than imposing something on it. It’s a sign of his success that this process never feels didactic but organic and developmental. Even (or especially) in the Prélude, the music seems to unwind gently, lazily, as if hanging in midair, but even here the recurrence of the languid flute theme gives the music shape, making a virtue out of recurrence.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of the set is Jeux. Not for Denève the idea that this music is cerebral and abstract. He reminds us that it was written as a ballet for Diaghilev, and as if to underline this the notes give us detailed descriptions of each scene, track by track, as the music unfolds. Denève brings out the descriptive demands of each scene, but more important than this is the sense of scarcely concealed sexual tension that permeates the musical atmosphere: after all, it’s basically a depiction of a ménage à trois, and the music rises inexorably to the climax (literally!) of the triple kiss. Debussy’s music is at its most kaleidoscopic in this work, themes darting briefly across the soundscape before giving way to others, but they never appear tokenistically: instead Denève uses each one like a painter, again, to create a moving image that shimmers and glides before our ears.
What fantastic colours Denève has at his disposal! Under his directorship the RSNO have gone from strength to strength and it is no exaggeration to say that they can now hold their own in the company of the great orchestras of Europe. With this conductor they have become particularly highly praised in French music and they showcase this new expertise at every opportunity in this disc. The strings are delicate and suggestive, the brass evocative and the percussion brilliantly colourful. The winds, in particular, are especially pungent, adding a touch of perfume to everything they touch. It’s extraordinary just how good the orchestra now is at this sort of repertoire, and it will be interesting to see in what direction they go after Denève. Richard Morrison of The Times once described the RSNO as “the best French orchestra north of Calais”. These discs will show you why.
The less substantial works on the set are just as stylishly played. The Marche écossaise is based on a genuine Scottish ancestral melody, a melody we were treated to in its entirety when the orchestra opened their season with this work. You can sense the tune’s Scottish origin, not least through its rhythm, but Debussy very much makes it his own and it’s an interesting, Gallicised hybrid of styles. Printemps is a youthful work depicting the “laborious birth” of Spring, but it contains lots of suggestions of the composer’s later work, both in its colour and its texture. It’s well shaped and attractively played here, especially by the leaping horns in the second section, though the ending is surprisingly conventional for Debussy. The movements from L’Enfant Prodigue both set evocative scenes from the cantata, and the dance has the scent of Palestinian night about it, to my ears at least. The Berceuse héroïque was written as a tribute to the Belgian soldiers of the First World War. It’s a rather odd piece, contrasting gentle melancholy with some plodding march rhythms, but it’s effective enough in its own curious way.
Throughout the set Denève and his team get help from the tremendous quality of the recorded sound, captured with outstanding clarity by Brian Pidgeon and his Chandos engineers, and giving a real sense of space to the sound, allowing each instrument to be picked out and enjoyed in its own right, as well as relishing its contribution to the whole. This sets the seal on an outstanding release, a praiseworthy contribution to the Debussy anniversary year, and a memento of what has become one of the most distinguished musical partnerships of recent years. Invest with confidence.
An outstanding release and a praiseworthy contribution to Debussy anniversary year. Invest with confidence.