Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Preludes, Books I (1910) and II (1913) (orch. Peter Breiner)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 16-18 June 2011
NAXOS 8.572584 [36.54 + 39.31]

Not satisfied with his recording of Colin Matthews’s orchestration of the Debussy Préludes in his complete set of the composer’s orchestral music for Naxos with the Lyon orchestra, Jun Märkl now turns to a new orchestration of the same pieces with the RSNO for the same label. The arrangement here is by Peter Breiner, who unlike Colin Matthews keeps more strictly to Debussy’s own piano scores. He also adopts a more authentically Debussian orchestral style which in many ways is reminiscent of the work of Caplet and Büsser during the composer’s own lifetime. Indeed the setting of Canopes sounds uncannily close to Caplet’s orchestration of the opening of Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. We are given very little information about Breiner’s approach to his task, beyond the statement that he undertook his orchestration “for the present recording.” The internet informs us that was born in 1957 in Slovakia and that he is known among other things for his orchestrations of the Beatles and Elvis Presley; that he lived in Canada from 1992-2007; that he now resides in New York; and that he is a passionate soccer player, as well as a television personality in Slovakia. Quite a polymath, in fact; and he does a really professional job here.
Not all Debussy’s preludes lend themselves easily to orchestral treatment - they are too intrinsically pianistic for that - and some of the tracks here are a little too noisily scored to be totally convincing. But others are superbly handled, not least the lambent clarinet solo that opens La fille aux cheveux de lin. The longest of the pieces, La cathédrale engloutie, probably stands to gain most from orchestral treatment. In my review of Märkl’s recording of the Colin Matthews orchestrations (review; not to forget Elder’s cycle on Hallé) I pointed out that “There is in particular a real problem at the beginning in the original piano version. The principal melody is stated against a background of a distantly tolling bell. This is perfectly clear in the piano score, but in performance the sound of the ‘bell’ obscures the melodic line and requires very careful handling by the pianist if it is to ‘come through’ - which it very rarely does successfully. In an orchestral version the variety of available colour makes it easy to differentiate the two elements.” It is interesting to note the different ways in which Colin Matthews, Peter Breiner and Leopold Stokowski approach the matter. An examination of their various approaches to this one Prelude may help to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of this particular set of orchestrations.
The prelude itself begins with a passage of six bars of widely spaced piano harmony, clearly intended to be blurred by sustained pedals. Although Debussy gives no precise indications for pedalling at any point, his intentions are apparent from his direction Dans une brume doucement sonore. Stokowski conveys this through an extreme almost echo effect which aptly conveys the idea of the watery atmosphere surrounding the sunken cathedral. Breiner sticks much more closely to Debussy’s actual written notes, with clarity given precedence over atmosphere; and Matthews comes somewhere between the two. When we come to the initial appearance of the first melody to which I referred in the previous paragraph, Stokowski represents the tolling bell with a reiterated note on the glockenspiel (very forward in his own recording) while Matthews uses a tubular bell in the octave below, which allows the melody to come forward more clearly. Breiner does not use any bell effect at all, although he achieves a haunting effect with the melody doubled in string harmonics, and this altogether rather misses the point of Debussy’s reiterated Es. After two bars in which the opening material returns (now marked by Debussy sans nuances) the music moves forward in a passage marked Peu à peu sortant de la brume, in which the cathedral emerges from the depths towards the daylight. The problem here comes with the semi-quaver middle-register passages indicated by Debussy as marqué - just how prominent should they be? Breiner hardly brings them forward at all; Stokowski reinforces them with horns and bells; and Matthews reinforces them with horns alone, which seems to get the balance about right. Eight bars later there is a high descending figure which again suggests a peal of bells, and this causes difficulty to all the orchestrators. Stokowski and Matthews both give the passage to violins, although the passage is perilously high as they attack the first note; Breiner uses woodwind, which is both safer and sounds better. Six bars later the sunken cathedral is fully revealed in a passage where deep tolling bells underlie an organ-like chorale melody. Matthews scores the chorale for brass; Breiner scores it more satisfactorily for woodwind and strings; Stokowski scores it for full orchestra with octave doublings in tremolo strings and high woodwind, which achieves the right sort of grandeur but sacrifices the organ quality. At the end of the chorale there is a rising three-note figure which all three orchestrators assign to the brass, but Matthews extends this upwards into the woodwind and adds another bar leading to the imitative bell sounds which follow.
The initial melody then returns, marked expressif et concentré, and all three orchestrators again treat it differently. Stokowski gives it to bass clarinet with strengthening from what sounds like a muted tuba; Breiner gives it to the bassoon, solo; and Matthews gives it to the cellos, which better fulfils Debussy’s additional instruction Dans une expression allant grandissant. The tune builds to a climax and then subsides into a repetition of the chorale theme, now marked Comme une echo and floating over a figuration marked Flottant et sourd. Stokowski and Breiner both treat this quite literally, reducing the scoring of the chorale theme to a whisper on woodwind and tremolando strings; but Matthews does something quite different and rather more imaginative. He elaborates the ‘floating’ figuration (adding some bars to the music in the process) so that the strings whisper around the chorale theme in a manner that suggests Debussy’s earlier portrait of the sea in La mer. This is quite simply a magical passage in Matthews’s hands, and neither of the treatments of Stokowski or Breiner approach the same seductive effect. However there is a flip-side to this in the final six bars of the prelude, where Debussy indicates that the music should return to the sound of the opening - Dans la sonorité du début. Matthews needs to wind down his elaboration of the string figuration, and this process extends and overlays the final bars in a way that makes recapture of the initial sonorities unachievable. Breiner manages to return to the notes of the opening without any the need to add any additional bars, but then rather misses the point by giving the repetition of the opening phrases a new and different scoring. Stokowski alone here manages to recapture the original mood and sound, blurring his strings and woodwind in a manner that suggests the use of the sustaining pedal on the piano.
This may seem a very elaborate analysis of what is after all just one of the 24 tracks on this CD, but the comparison is illuminating and typical of the whole. Stokowski did not of course orchestrate all the Préludes, and one’s reaction to Breiner’s treatment of them here must depend entirely on the listener’s reaction to Matthews’s more idiosyncratic though not unidiomatic approach to the music. He gives us Debussy reflected through the mind of another composer with ideas of his own; Breiner gives us a version of the Préludes as they might have been more straightforwardly orchestrated by one of Debussy’s friends or pupils, but does not achieve Matthews’s sometimes transcendentally beautiful textures.
It is clear than Jun Märkl enjoys both approaches, but in his performances of La cathédrale engloutie it is clear that he draws an even more extreme distinction between the two. Where in his Lyon box of Debussy he allows the Colin Matthews orchestration to extend to 7:14, here he shaves over two minutes off that time, dispatching the Breiner arrangement in a mere 5:03 - and the difference is not accounted for by the two or three additional bars that Matthews adds to Debussy’s original. This is indeed a very brisk and efficient performance of the piece, and Märkl cannot avoid the sense of unnecessary hurry (for example at 3:46 into the track). A more usual duration would be around the 6’30” mark. This is rather an exception in Märkl’s performances, most of which are considerably more measured - he takes 4:40 for the final Feux d’artifice (as he did in his recording of the Matthews version) as against Gieseking’s 3:23.
Märkl, as I observed in my lengthy review of his complete Debussy orchestral music recorded in Lyon, is a conductor who obviously wants to explore every aspect of the composer and can often achieve enthralling results by taking extremely slow speeds in the music. He clearly enjoys Breiner’s often quirky orchestrations, but on a personal level I must say that I find Colin Matthews’s freer treatment of the scores pays additional rewards. Treat this disc therefore as a supplement to Märkl’s Lyon readings of the Matthews orchestrations, rather than a replacement for it. The orchestral performances are assured, and the sound is very nicely detailed.

Paul Corfield Godfrey 

The orchestral performances are assured, and the sound is very nicely detailed.