Recordings used for comparison:
La Mer and Prélude à l’après-midi
Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic/EMI, 1978; Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic/EMI,
Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw/Philips, 1993; Märkl/Orchestre
National de Lyon/Naxos, 2008
Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony/EMI, 1990;
Märkl/Orchestre National de Lyon/Naxos, 2010;
Haitink/as listed above
Glenn Gould once said that Karajan’s conducting of Debussy
was the perfect balance of the music’s “fire and
ice.” Undoubtedly, Gould would have said the same about
this exceptional new release by Daniele Gatti and the Orchestre
National de France. It opens with a cogent and atmospheric performance
of La Mer. The opening movement, De l’aube á
midi sur la mer, exhibits the many hallmarks of orchestral
execution and interpretative priorities found on the CD. Gatti
displays a complete mastery of the score; as I followed along,
every dynamic, articulation and expressive marking was honored.
Yet there is also great expressive freedom, readily apparent
in the many woodwind solos. Throughout, these solos are exceptionally
beautiful, in large part because Gatti allows his players freedom
to shape their phrases, and follows them every step of the way.
In fact, I cannot recall hearing this orchestra ever sounding
better than they do here. Debussy’s shimmering orchestral
colors are superbly realized, the wind players displaying a
chamber-music like awareness of what one another are doing.
This is complemented by a string section that fully realizes
Debussy’s many technical demands and changing timbres.
These musicians are not simply relying on the conductor to create
the correct color and balance. Instead, there is a corporate
musical awareness and sensitivity that contributes to the special
beauty of sound caught here.
The second movement, Jeux de vagues, is played with a
delicate lightness, the result of greater attention to articulation
and a more propulsive sense of forward momentum than is heard
in the Orchestra National de Lyon performance conducted by Jun
Märkl. The third movement begins impressively, with Gatti
ensuring that the low strings honor the pp crescendo
marking that is all too often ignored. Once again, the orchestra’s
balance is impressively maintained, even at the powerful climax
at REH 51. In the EMI Karajan recording the brass overwhelm
the other sections, but here the episode is perfectly realized.
One of my favorite moments in this movement is five measures
after REH 54, where the violins play an A-flat harmonic and
the two harps play ostinato figures, all accompanying the flute
and oboe solos. Gatti’s violins are incredibly soft, and
the solos are achingly beautiful - it took my breath away. For
those of you who keep track of such things, Gatti does include
the optional trumpet lines after Rehearsal 59. In the final
minute, the brass again impress in their final choral-like passage,
fully honoring Debussy’s instruction Trés sonore
mais sans dureté (With great sonority without any
harshness). Gatti and orchestra build inexorably towards the
climax, leading into final bars of overwhelming power where
the trumpets cut through the texture to thrilling effect. A
first rate performance in every way.
The flute solo that opens Prélude à l’après-midi
d’un faune is played with rapt beauty, instantly evoking
the sensuous atmosphere of Mallarmé’s poem. Gatti,
never one to sentimentalize his performances, plays the entire
work in 9.21, which is roughly 30 seconds faster than the excellent
performances by Karajan and Rattle, and almost two minutes faster
than Haitink’s admittedly somewhat cloying performance,
done in 11.07. Yet there is no loss of atmosphere, such is the
hauntingly beautiful playing. In undergraduate school my theory
teacher once said that the passage 5 measure after REH 7, where
the melody is played by the strings, accompanied by ostinato
patterns in the winds and harps, is the most beautiful section
of music anywhere. This performance could certainly be chosen
to back up that assertion.
The disc ends with an impressive performance of Images.
Debussy began work on the piece in 1905, originally intending
to write for piano duet, but after a few months he opted for
the orchestra. Several years passed before it was complete,
because Debussy was struggling with alterations and rewrites.
As Guido Johannes Joerg notes in his excellent liner-notes,
Debussy was placing “the impressionist’s free brushstrokes
to one side in favor of the exact dots of color applied by a
pointillist.” Gatti and the orchestra are supremely sensitive
to this stylistic change, and deliver a performance that, while
exacting in detail, nevertheless retains a sensuality that fully
captures the always shifting atmosphere of this marvelous music.
As we celebrate the anniversary of Debussy’s birth this
year, we are sure to see a large influx of new and re-issued
recordings of his music. Although it is only May, it is hard
to imagine that any of these new recordings will be more impressive
than this Gatti recording. No matter how many versions you have
of this repertoire, do add this to your shelves.
David A. McConnell
Masterwork Index: La