Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) [11:29]
Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone (1908; orch. Roger-Ducasse, 1919) [10:09]+
La mer (1905) [24:38]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La valse (1920) [13:16]
Boléro (1928) [15:38]*
+Kenneth Radnofsky (alto saxophone)
New York Philharmonic/Kurt Masur
rec. live, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, January 1996, *May 1993
WARNER APEX 2564-67717-4 [75:54]
The attention attracted by Kurt Masur's tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic may seem excessive in retrospect, at least to those who weren't in New York at the time. This French program, which I missed in its full-priced Teldec issue, reminds us what the fuss was about.
Masur's tightening of discipline after his arrival in 1991 proved tonic for an ensemble accustomed to the sometimes casual manner of their previous director, Zubin Mehta. His absorption of the Central European tradition and his healthy musicality elicited committed playing. Under Masur's guidance, the brass retained full-throated balance and impact, and the polished woodwinds acquired a greater elegance. The massed string tone remained a bit diffuse, but the swarthy tone of the Mehta years was replaced by trim, better-controlled playing that filled out the textures with rhythmic point.
This Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune shows these improvements, despite being overly spacious. The opening flute solo is far too languid - the slow tempo renders the obligatory breath in the second bar more rather than less conspicuous - and the oboe solo at 4:13 is similarly becalmed. That said, the performance is sensitive and well-organized; the tapered, vibrant strings are a pleasure; and the solo winds, given time to luxuriate, are extraordinarily beautiful.
La mer, similarly, is handsomely played - note the rich divided cellos at 4:40 of the first movement - but more Germanic than Gallic in spirit. Only in the finale - where Masur, like many non-French interpreters, adopts an overly expansive approach to the second theme - does the rhetoric seem a bit much. Even the tutti statement at 5:44, though tonally resplendent, is static.
The saxophone rhapsody is a curious score. It's designated "for orchestra and saxophone," rather than the reverse. This suggests a tone-poem with obbligato rather than a full-fledged concertante piece, with the composer exploiting the "exotic" and caressing aspects of the sax, rather than its jazzy implications. The opening section wouldn't be out of place in Ravel's Shéhérazade, with the sort of mercurial woodwind playing that the Faune could have used. Then, at 7:36, the music turns unexpectedly "modern," juxtaposing striding, aggressive chords against contrasting lyrical phrases. It's a good performance, with a bit of rhetorical distension in the home stretch. Soloist Kenneth Radnofsky's playing is refined, but the timbre retains enough pungency that the saxophone doesn't just sound like a bigger clarinet.
Boléro, sometimes described as a fifteen-minute exercise in orchestral color, seems an unlikely choice for performers not noted as colorists. The flute and clarinet solos at the start - both, admittedly, in a nondescript range - lack distinction, and Masur perhaps understates the episode for horn and two piccolos at 6:52, missing the organ-like bite of Ormandy (RCA). On the plus side, the solo horn is round and, where needed, cheeky; the saxophonist, presumably Radnofsky again, is assertive and just reedy enough; and the violins are shapely when they finally have at the theme. Rhythmic control, so important in this score, is rock-solid.
La valse has long been a Philharmonic specialty: Bernstein, Boulez, and even Mehta left their own stamp on it in various Columbia (now Sony) recordings. Masur rises to the discographic challenge, in a reading that underlines the undulating waltz rhythms and invests the climaxes with a persuasive surge. The rhythms in tutti are weightier and more marked than most; moving high string chords are appealingly translucent.
With first-rate sound - better than one expected, given all the whining about the Fisher Hall acoustics - this will please New Yorkers and fellow-travellers who, like me, collected the recordings of the Masur era. Even with the excellent La valse, it's not quite a basic library acquisition. If you want the rhapsody, which isn't aired much, I'd suggest John Harle's EMI account, with the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields providing colorful support - unless a CD's worth of saxophone concertos sounds too much for you.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist. 

Masterwork Index: La Mer

This will please New Yorkers and fellow-travellers who collect Masur era recordings.