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Claude DEBUSSY (1906-1975)
Complete Orchestral Works
for track listing see end of review
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, various dates 2007-2011
NAXOS 8.509002 [9 CDs: 9:08.49]

Experience Classicsonline

There’s never been a better time to buy CDs – boxes especially – as record labels flood the market with bargains from their back catalogues. Brilliant Classics are a case in point, bringing together material from a variety of sources to create themed collections. Others group all the volumes in a given cycle and repackage them as a single, discounted set. As always with such compendiums there’s likely to be some chaff mixed in with the wheat, and that can dilute their perceived value. Of the boxes I’ve reviewed in recent months only one – Philip Martin’s estimable Gottschalk survey for Hyperion – has been consistently satisfying, making it a terrific bargain in every respect (review).
Some of the discs in Jun Märkl’s Debussy cycle have already been reviewed on these pages – and generally well received – but they are new to me. Also, the title ‘complete orchestral works’ needs some clarification, for much of this 9-CD set is taken up with arrangements and orchestrations by hands other than Debussy’s. Quelle surprise, not all are of the highest quality.
CD 1 is fairly typical, three of Debussy’s undisputed masterpieces – Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, La mer and Jeux – coupled with André Caplet’s orchestration of Children’s Corner.
Regrettably, that idyllic Prélude gets a rough and unsympathetic ride and the orchestral gear-changes as unsubtle as I’ve ever heard them. Even the flute playing is charmless with the sound being bright and rather shallow. There’s no warmth anywhere, and no soft edges. The changing seascapes of La mer are most crudely drawn. For a genuinely poetic and powerful version of the latter I would direct you to this beautifully characterised reading from the Singapore SO conducted by Lan Shui; it’s superbly recorded (review). As for Jeux, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a less engaging performance would be hard to imagine. It doesn’t get any better and Debussy’s nursery tunes are devoid of delicacy and wit. Idiomatic? Non. The playing is passable at best.
Not a good start, although on CD 2 Marius Constant’s reworking of purely orchestral segments from Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande captures rather more of the composer’s sound-world than we’ve heard thus far. That said, there’s an element of doggedness in Märkl’s interpretation that spoils the magic; moreover, the reasonably detailed but curiously dull recording doesn’t help. The Nocturnes are much more successful, Nuages atmospheric, Fêtes bright and buoyant. As for the wordless Leipzig choir in Sirènes, it’s suitably distant but prone to sounding fierce in louder passages. Really, the performances are just too prosaic for my taste; Bernard Haitink (Philips) offers far more subtle readings of these lovely pieces. The Berceuse héroïque is the best thing on the disc. The three Études are imbued with a point and character I hadn’t expected from these forces.
Now that’s more encouraging; I can only assume that a project such as this takes time to ‘bed in’, and that working on these pieces in a concentrated burst of activity yields more insights along the way. CD 3 kicks off with the Images and Gigues is played with unaccustomed vigour and weight. It’s the Iberian triptych that really impresses with its rhythms well judged and colours most vividly rendered. The evanescence of night is especially well caught; the recording is more velvety, more tactile, than before. The dancing, daylight festivities are no less alluring the orchestra being incisive here and in the spring rounds. As for the rest, Ravel’s trademark colours shine brightly in Sarabande from Pour le piano and the tarantella, the latter wonderfully lucid. The Scottish march is feelingly done and La plus que lente is dispatched with a lightness and sparkle that can’t fail to please.
What a relief to find some ears of grain after the barren harvest of CD 1; indeed, CD 4 is the most bountiful, starting with a sophisticated and superbly dramatic reading of the symphonic fragments Le Martyre de St. Sébastien. The orchestra plays with great finesse with Märkl keeping a firm grasp on the reins throughout. This urgent, shimmering music reminds one of the finely honed writing of Debussy’s later years and underlines the need for a top-flight, unabridged modern recording of this great score. Although not as inspired, Charles Koechlin’s completion of the ballet Khamma is certainly worth hearing, more so when it’s this well played. The snippets from the incidental music to Le roi Lear – orchestrated by Jean Roger-Ducasse – are splendid. The excerpt from the L’enfant prodigue sounds at times like an early sketch for Ravel’s Boléro.
CD 4, with its focus on Debussy’s dramatic works, is the best disc in the set thus far, and augurs well for the rest. CD 5 starts with an enchanting – and enchanted – performance of La boîte à joujoux, the gentle wit so lacking in Children’s Corner here in abundance. No qualms about the recording either, which seems to have lost the rough edges of that first disc. It’s a lovely performance in every way and is affectionately played. Marius-François Gaillard’s arrangement of Le triomphe de Bacchus may be a trifle but it’s a pleasing one, Ernest Ansermet’s orchestration of the six epigraphs is light of touch and texture. The fourth of these, Pour la danseuse aux crotales, is nimbly done.
On CD 6 the first of Robin Holloway’s orchestrations of En blanc et noirAvec emportement – is delivered with plenty of bite and telling contrast. The Stygian gloom of the second is at times reminiscent of Respighi. As for the Scherzando, it doesn’t sound particularly Debussian but it’s no less enjoyable for that. Tuttis are bright though not distractingly so in this virtuosic context. By contrast, Henri Büsser’s arrangement of the Petite Suite has more warmth and elegance, the playing both refined and refulgent. There’s much to delight the ear in this music. The freewheeling Cortège and graceful Menuet are especially well shaped. The Cloez/Caplet arrangements of Suite bergamasque are very accomplished too with Clair de lune more forceful than dreamily evocative. L’isle joyeux, in Bernardino Molinari’s arrangement at least, is sturdy but not very memorable.
CD 7 offers Colin Matthews’ orchestration of the Book 1 Préludes, among Debussy’s loveliest creations. Any misgivings I might have had about this version were simply swept away by the soft edges of that Delphic dance and the diaphanous textures of Voiles. These are exemplary orchestrations, the mood and manner of each very well caught. Just listen to the fibrillations of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir, the simple radiance of La fille aux cheveux de lin or the dry wit of La danse de Puck. The playing and recording are beyond reproach here and in Printemps, the orchestration of which is not as distinguished or as variegated as its predecessor.
There’s more from Colin Matthews on CD 8, his orchestration of Book 2 being as full of magic as the first. Feuilles morts is as darkly introspective as one could wish and the strong, Ravelian rhythms of La Puerta del Vino are delectably done. There are no missteps here, musically or technically, and while I won’t abandon my favourite set of the piano versions – played with such authority and style by Steven Osborne – I look forward to revisiting these highly contagious orchestrations. As for André Caplet’s take on Pagodes, it’s engaging enough if a tad soupy. Büsser’s La soirée dans Grenade is a bit heavy on local flavour. The real disappointment here is Tony Finno’s bloated orchestral arrangement of the Symphony in B minor. Originally a piano duet it doesn’t sound remotely Debussian here and, frankly, it’s eminently forgettable.
After those brief lapses Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s sparkling rendition of the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra on CD 9 is very welcome indeed. True, the Lento may lack a little character but Thibaudet isn’t the most spontaneous of pianists. Paul Meyer’s clarinet in the Première Rapsodie is somewhat reedy but these are perfectly good performances of less-than-first-rate works. As for Alexandre Doisy’s playing in the Rapsodie for alto saxophone it’s pleasing without being distinctive, but then this isn’t a piece from the top drawer either. The two dances for harp and strings are more appealing. Emmanuel Ceysson’s playing is full of animation and colour.
After a disastrous start this set makes a remarkable – nay, heroic – recovery, with discs four, seven and eight simply unmisssable. There’s definitely more wheat than chaff in this box, and if it weren’t for CD 1 and, to some extent, CD 2, I’d be sorely tempted to make this a Bargain of the Month. It certainly exudes quality, the sturdy presentation box, sleeved discs and substantial booklet are pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the touch.
Despite early miscalculations, this box deserves to do well.
Dan Morgan

See also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey - RECORDING OF THE MONTH April 2012

CD 1 [73:06]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune [10:12]
La mer
1. De l'aube a midi sur la mer [9:22]
2. Jeux de vagues [7:09]
3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer [8:22]
Jeux [19:25]
Children's Corner (arr. André Caplet for orchestra)
1. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum [2:46]
2. Jimbo's Lullaby [3:42]
3. Serenade for the Doll [2:51]
4. The Snow is Dancing [3:18]
5. The Little Shepherd [2:35]
6. Golliwogg's Cake-Walk [3:24]
CD 2 [69:26]
Pelléas et Mélisande - symphonie (arr. Marius Constant) [25:05]
1. Nuages [7:22]
2. Fêtes [6:37]
3. Sirènes [11:13]
Berceuse héroïque (version for orchestra) [4:55]
12 Études (excerpts) (arr. Michael Jarrell for orchestra)
No. 9. Pour les notes répétées [3:09]
No. 10. Pour les sonorités opposées [5:24]
No. 12. Pour les accords [4:50]
CD 3 [58:56]
1. Gigues [7:31]
2a. Ibéria: Par les rues et par les chemins [7:06]
2b. Ibéria: Les parfums de la nuit [9:18]
2c. Ibéria: Le matin d'un jour de fête [4:32]
3. Rondes de printemps [8:05]
Pour le piano (arr. Maurice Ravel for orchestra)
II. Sarabande [4:32]
Danse, ‘Tarantelle styrienne’ (arr. Maurice Ravel for orchestra) [5:28]
Marche ecossaise sur un thème populaire (version for orchestra) [6:19]
La plus que lente (version for orchestra) [6:05]
CD 4 [60:34]
Le Martyre de St. Sébastien: Fragments symphoniques
1. La cour de lys (from Act I: Prelude) [3:39]
2. Danse extatique et Final (from Act I) [7:20]
3. La Passion (from Act III) [5:52]
4. Le bon pasteur (from Act IV) [5:55]
5. Act II. La chambre magique: Prélude [4:07]
Act III: Le concile des faux dieux
6. Fanfare No. 1 [1:51]
7. Fanfare No. 2 [00:28]
Khamma (orchestration completed by Charles Koechlin) [21:59]
Le roi Lear (orch. Jean Roger-Ducasse)
1. Fanfare d'ouverture [1:37]
2. Le sommeil de Lear [2:47]
L'enfant prodigue
Cortège et Air de danse [4:59]
CD 5 [54:26]
La boîte à joujoux (arr. Claude Debussy and André Caplet for orchestra)
1. Prélude: Le sommeil de la boîte [2:42]
2. Tableau 1: Le magasin de jouets [6:13]
3. Valse: Danse de la poupée [4:38]
4. Tableau 2: Le champ de bataille [9:15]
5. Tableau 3: La bergerie à vendre [6:45]
6. Tableau 4: Après fortune faite [1:42]
7. Épilogue [1:33]
Le triomphe de Bacchus (arr. Marius-François Gaillard for orchestra) [3:37]
Six épigraphes antiques (arr. Ernest Ansermet for orchestra)
1. Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d'été [2:43]
2. Pour un tombeau sans nom [4:06]
3. Pour que la nuit soit propice [2:43]
4. Pour la danseuse aux crotales [2:42]
5. Pour l'Égyptienne [3:33]
6. Pour remercier la pluie au matin [2:19]
CD 6 [54:50]
En blanc et noir (arr. Robin Holloway for orchestra)
1. Avec emportement [4:48]
2. Lent. Sombre [8:19]
3. Scherzando [4:20]
Petite Suite (arr. Henri Büsser for orchestra)
1. En bateau [3:48]
2. Cortège [3:07]
3. Menuet [2:53]
4. Ballet [3:10]
Suite bergamasque (arr. Gustave Cloez, André Caplet for orchestra)
1. Prélude [4:18]
2. Menuet [4:03]
3. Clair de lune [4:46]
4. Passepied [3:47]
L'isle joyeuse (arr. Bernardino Molinari for orchestra) [6:54]
CD 7 [58:45]
Préludes, Book 1 (arr. Colin Matthews for orchestra)
1. Danseuses de Delphes [3:03]
2. Voiles [3:35]
3. Le vent dans la plaine [2:44]
4. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir [3:48]
5. Les collines d'Anacapri [3:34]
6. Des pas sur la neige [4:01]
7. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest [3:09]
8. La fille aux cheveux de lin [3:37]
9. La sérénade interrompue [2:52]
10. La cathédrale engloutie [7:11]
11. La danse de Puck [3:07]
12. Minstrels [2:24]
Printemps (arr. Henri Büsser for orchestra)
1. Trés modéré [8:55]
2. Modéré [6:25]
CD 8 [65:42]
Préludes, Book 2 (arr. Colin Matthews for orchestra)
1. Brouillards [2:50]
2. Feuilles mortes [3:04]
3. La Puerta del Vino [3:18
4. Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses [4:07]
5. Bruyères [3:44]
6. General Lavine - eccentric [3:30]
7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune [4:42]
8. Ondine [3:18]
9. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. [2:41]
10. Canope [2:50]
11. Les tierces alternées [3:37]
12. Feux d'artifice [4:31]
No. 1. Pagodes (arr. André Caplet for orchestra) [5:38]
No. 2. La soirée dans Grenade (arr. Henri Büsser for orchestra) [5:53]
Symphony in B minor (arr. Tony Finno for orchestra)
1. Allegro ben marcato [4:11]
2. Un poco lento, cantabile [2:45]
3. Primo tempo [4:24]
CD 9 [51:27]
Fantaisie for piano and orchestra
1. Andante ma non troppo [7:44]
2. Lento e molto espressivo - Allegro molto [16:33]
Première Rapsodie for orchestra with principal clarinet [7:36]
Rapsodie (orch. R. Roger-Ducasse) [10:00]
Deux Danses for harp and strings
1. Danse sacrée [4:32]
2. Danse profane [4:41]


































































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