The designation "Great Recordings of the Century" is about half right,
at least in terms of time.
Images pour orchestre
was EMI Classics' first digital recording.
The score was obviously chosen to play to the strengths of André
Previn, one of EMI's leading and best-selling conductors at the time.
The choice paid off handsomely in a performance full of life. The
variety of kaleidoscopically shifting instrumental colours make this
performance a voluptuary's dream: lustrous, full-bodied woodwinds;
vibrant strings that shimmer as they move into the upper reaches,
velvety horns calling across the orchestral plane; taut brass chords,
splashes of tinkling bells and washes of cymbal. Previn also does
a good job maintaining the music's through-line, though the usual
crop up in parts of Ibéria
. I wouldn't
swear that everything's precisely lined-up in the more intricate textures.
That said, it's the cavalcade of colours that lingers in the ear.
Coordination issues, however, are more distracting in the shorter,
more lightly scored Faune
, which accompanied the Images
on the original LP issue. Previn's approach to Debussy is basically
Romantic. He infuses the phrases with a more active surge and sweep
than in his earlier, analogue account. In some of those surging rubato
the supporting harmonies don't quite stay with the themes they're
supposed to be supporting. The passage with the wind triplets at 5:35,
unexpectedly, holds together better than most, but the sonority thickens,
suggesting that the mixing board was being worked with a heavy hand.
It took producers some time to realize that the elaborate mike setups
of late-analog days wouldn't always work in the cold light of digital
bring their incidental insights, but their flaws
as well, some of which are, again, related to the sound. The opening
are solemn and hieratic, evoking Pélléas
at times; but surely the textures should be more austere than this?
has some nice moments - the woodwinds take care
to differentiate triplets from dotted rhythms; the broad lyrical themes
sing, as they don't in more driving performances - but the overall
manner is too earnest, and the climaxes thicken. The horns that launch
are warm and enveloping, but there's little
sense of space around the sound, and the atmosphere is lost.
There you have it. The Images
haven't had a lot of stunning
recorded outings. Previn's undulating, richly coloured reading might
serve as a neat foil to, say, Boulez's more abstract account. The
latter conductor's Sony box also includes the Nocturnes
that conductor's "remove" is very much to the point. For the Faune
my loyalties remain with Ansermet's early stereo version on Decca.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and
Great Recordings of the Century