My first encounter with La mer, back in my high school
days, left me both entranced and flummoxed. There didn't seem
to be any recognizable rhythmic patterns underlying the liquid,
coruscating textures. I was listening to Ansermet's first stereo
recording (Decca), if you're curious. I couldn't imagine how
one conducted such music. Later on, when I saw the score, I
discovered it was laid out in ordinary measures of 3/4, 4/4,
and such, with upbeats and downbeats, just like anything else
- it was Debussy's genius to make the barlines "disappear".
At the start of La mer, however, one wonders whether
Michel Tabachnik perhaps hadn't received the memo. The sustained,
upwardly rising string tones, usually played for subdued atmosphere,
are cleanly attacked and precisely placed, with scientific accuracy
- you can practically hear the two beats clicking on each note.
While one appreciates the conductor's desire to avoid the rhythmic
and tonal murk that sometimes passes for an "Impressionist patina",
this seems to take matters to the other extreme.
Fortunately, that stiff start isn't characteristic of the performance
as a whole. In fact, the first two movements of Tabachnik's
reading are worth hearing for his way with the undulating rhythms.
The first movement's cello theme goes buoyantly, despite the
approximate attacks. The slashing energy at 3:38 of the same
movement suggests the positive qualities of Toscanini's performances.
The second movement, brisk and incisive, underlines its scherzo-like
character, thus reinforcing the "symphonic" relationship lacing
the score's three movements. The solo violin sounds a bit taxed
by the scurrying after 2:02, but the woodwinds take the tempo
The third movement, despite a convincing surge and sense of
purpose, is less firmly grounded. In the expansive statement
at 4:18, the players aren't sure exactly how the acceleration
is meant to go. The clumsy fanfares at 5:28 aren't quite in
step with everyone else.
In the Faune sparkling woodwind solos illuminate the
texture, and Tabachnik draws energy out of the shorter musical
segments without losing the long line. Like most French interpreters,
he keeps the piece moving - almost too much so at the cadences
after 4:16, which wanted to relax but sound a bit hectic. The
first "dovetail" between sections, at 0:59, is smudged, not
clean. The vague ending is more critical: the final flute phrases
just sort of evaporate, while the pizzicatos beneath feel rhythmically
The Nocturnes, alas, bring nothing special to the table,
or to the discography. Nuages is pretty but aimless,
wavering ambiguously, as some performances do, between the notated
6/4 and what sounds more like a 3/2. Tabachnik fails to explore
the nuances of woodwind color. Fêtes is lively
and alert. I like the emphatic pizzicatos at 2:06 but the conductor's
slower, unrelated tempo for the procession episode makes for
the usual awkwardness when the two themes combine. In Sirènes,
the women of Flemish Radio are evocative, but the manner is
too plain and the dynamics unvaried. The movement, which ought
to taper off and fade, just stops abruptly.
The Brussels Philharmonic, joining the ranks of orchestras that
produce their own concert recordings, is running in some pretty
fast company: the Chicago Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, the
LSO and such. I suppose the economics of the situation are much
the same at all levels. At any rate, the ensemble has nothing
to be ashamed of: the playing is polished in tone, and well-disciplined
when the conductor's beat permits. The engineering is basically
fine, though the trumpets are edgy.
As a document of, presumably, a representative night at the
concert hall in Brussels, this will undoubtedly find its parochial
following, but I can't imagine it'll transfer successfully to
the international market.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,
Masterwork Index: La