Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La mer (1905) [23:45]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) [9:53]
Nocturnes (1899) [24:39]
Flemish Radio Choir
Brussels Philharmonic/Michel Tabachnik
rec. Studio 4, Flagey (Brussels), June 2010
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 in stride.
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 uncommitted.
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, and journalist.

Masterwork Index: La Mer
Will undoubtedly find its parochial following but I can't imagine it'll transfer successfully to the international market.