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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892-4) [10:30]
Images pour orchestre (1905-12) [37:48]
Trois Nocturnes (1897-9) [26:13]*
*Ambrosian Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, July 1979, *April 1983
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 3919672 [74:43]

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 longueurs 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 rubatos, 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 day.
 
The Nocturnes bring their incidental insights, but their flaws as well, some of which are, again, related to the sound. The opening Nuages are solemn and hieratic, evoking Pélléas at times; but surely the textures should be more austere than this? Fêtes 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 Sirènes 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, where 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 journalist.

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