Images (1905-12) [35:55]
Jeux (1912-13) [17:32]
Nocturnes (1897-99)* [24:13]
La Mer (1903-05) [23:58]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune (1891-94) [10:14]
Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (1890) [6:32]
Printemps (1887) [15:12]
Two movements from L’Enfant prodigue (1884; revised 1907-08) [7:04]
Berceuse héroïque (1914) [4:34]
Women of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus*
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève
rec. 10-12 October 2011 and 7-9 February 2012, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
CHANDOS CHSA 5102(2) [78:04 + 68:22]
This is one heck of a collection, and beautifully performed throughout. I’ve mentioned that feeling of a record feeling ‘right’ in the groove almost before the music starts, and this is very much one of these. The opening of Images is genuinely haunting, the unearthly sounds sending one scurrying for the score to find out what is going on. Fear not; ’tis only a trio clarinets, but those little grace notes never sounded quite so spooky. Don’t turn up the volume too loud, as the opening of the second movement Ibéria will blow your wig off.
This is the kind of state of the art recording which will mercilessly reveal inaccuracies, but everyone is at the top of their game, and you can hear the care and preparation which has gone into making these performances better than many or most, perhaps even all. Such attention to detail might of course lead to over-analytical sterility, but there are plenty of little touches which will automatically raise a smile. Have a listen to those brass glissandi at 5:04 in that second of the Images. These things aren’t always as apparent as they might be in recordings, and Denève does just enough to give them prominence without becoming vulgar. Le Matin d’un jour de fête is tremendously pictorial, with hefty string pizzicati and a powerful sense of folksy fun and perhaps even some danger - the spirit of Stravinsky just around the corner. The rhythmic power towards the end of Rondes de printemps is irresistible.
Jeux was Debussy’s last original orchestral work, and written for a Diaghilev ballet - first performed in fact just two weeks before Stravinsky’s infamous première of Le Sacre du printemps. Debussy is less overtly controversial than Stravinsky, but this remains music full of enigmatic tonal questions and a remarkably complex structure. This is one recording and performance in which all of the “brief, kaleidoscopically changing themes [and] orchestration continually in flux” of Roger Nichols’ booklet notes can be heard with startling clarity. This is tricky enough music to play let alone to create a choreography for or to dance to, but the imagination is set alight by such a brilliant performance. The booklet has a complete outline of the narrative, which is a fascinating read.
Nocturnes is nothing if not atmospheric in its outer movements, and the opening Nuages is superbly melancholic here. The weight of the brass chords in the central Fêtes will blow your socks off, and the choir of Sirènes is suitably distant and ethereal, if just a fraction below the note in places. I’ve always liked André Previn’s London Symphony Orchestra Debussy recording, to be found in various guises on EMI, and his Nocturnes is inspiring. The choir is a little more forward and vibrato laden than with Denève and the Chandos production is a little more glossy, but Previn stands as a reminder that even the best of new recordings can’t take away the superlatives from some of the classic versions.
I’ve pulled a few references out to make comparisons for these pieces, but this Chandos recording and Stéphane Denève’s conducting knocks most of them into a cocked tricorne. Jean Martinon’s EMI collection with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF (see review) has plenty of French character and pungency, but also includes plenty of edgy intonation. A more recent collection on single discs has emerged from the Naxos label with the Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl, and the playing here is of a higher if more homogenised standard to Martinon. These recordings are full of beautiful moments and received mixed if generally positive reviews when released, but once again Denève has the Lyon orchestra beaten at every turn. The atmosphere is more uniquely breathtaking, the dance rhythms lighter and more convincingly driven, the recording a more balanced and integrated orchestral picture with the Naxos sound tending to be a touch too spotlit, picking out solos beautifully but losing that essential sense of integration when everything is brought together.
Moving on to the second disc, and a La Mer which again is strong on atmosphere. We all have our individual associations with this kind of work, and for me this is a seascape of abstracts rather than redolent of any specific region - southern, Atlantic, it could be any impressive seascape. String separation is a notable feature of some passages in De l’aube à midi sur la mer, the clarity in the 5th minute creating striking darting spatial effects.There’s a greater sense of threat and danger in Martinon’s Dialogue du vent et de la mer, Denève’s cleanliness of texture holding out a scene which has an extra layer of Turner-esque objectivity; superb for the imagination, but without the feeling that you are about to be dragged under, to wonder briefly if your wristwatch really is Water Resistant before being consumed by uncaring nature. The climaxes are magnificent however, and there are no real complaints to be heard from me.
Katherine Bryan’s limpid flute solo in Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune deserves a mention - every flautist’s dream moment. The beautifully rounded horn sound and everything else is also gorgeously sumptuous. This is of course one of Debussy’s sexiest scores, and the shimmering summer heat is beautifully portrayed, the effulgent scenario laid out with remarkable succulence. The Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire is something of a filler and gets a nice airing here. Printemps is a far more substantial addition, though with plenty of that earlier salon-style melodic facility which helped Debussy keep his head above water. This is however the first of his works to which the term ‘impressionism’ was applied, and the moods and orchestral sonorities are tinted with some remarkable colours and effects. This makes Printemps dangerously modern for its time, though this is hard to imagine that kind of opinion today with the RSNO’s rich string tones and lyrical fluidity.
The revised movements from Debussy’s early prizewinning cantata L’Enfant prodigue are closer to contemporary convention, but still manage to convey a strong pictorial sense, pre-echoing the composer’s responses to nature and poetry. Both this and the final Berceuse héroïque are produced with the same attention to detail as every other score in this collection. This final track is by no means a pompous celebration of heroism, but is in fact a rather quiet wartime “tribute to the Belgian King and People” which includes quotations from the national anthem ‘La Brabançonne’.  

This double SACD set has been packaged in a slimline cardboard box which further houses a substantial booklet with full notes on each piece in English, German and French. The SACD production is superb, as much for the luxuriant and sonic fidelity as for the 5.0 spread of sound, which at times develops astounding acuteness. Debussy’s orchestration and musical imagination is something which responds very well indeed to this treatment, and this is one collection in which you can bathe from beginning to end without having to change the bathwater. I’m not going to be critical in this regard, but some may see this collection as lacking in that last ounce of Gallic verve, the kind of edgy sense of near-anarchy which some older recordings can convey. The standard of playing and the layering of orchestral colours and harmonies are unsurpassed, and I will take this kind of playing, which does have its own character, over the inspired liabilities of numerous older recordings, classic status or no. To my ears this has been approached in the same way as baking cakes: that kind of cooking which demands carefully weighed and sifted alchemy to succeed. You may not want to be eating cake every day but the results here are delicious - moist and with great depth of flavour; not too sweet, and a feast for every sense - we’ll be keeping Mr Denève’s number and ordering more when the time comes.  

Dominy Clements
Sumptuous sonic bathing: thrillingly superb. 

Masterwork Index: La Mer