Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) [24.02]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [9.21]
Images (1908-1912) [33.19]
Orchestre National de France/Daniele Gatti
rec. Salle Liebermann, Opéra Bastille, Paris, 11-20 July 2011 (La Mer, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune); Alfortville, France, 16-17, 19 September 2011 (Images)
SONY CLASSICAL 88697 974002 [68:42]

Recordings used for comparison:
La Mer and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic/EMI, 1978; Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic/EMI, 2005;
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 

No matter how many versions you have of this repertoire, do add this to your shelves.