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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images pour orchestra [38:36]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [11:23]
La Mer, trois esquisses symphoniques [25:50]
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. July 2013 (Prélude), July 2009 (Images), August 2004 (La Mer), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
BIS BIS1837 SACD [76:48]

Those who heard the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Lan Shui at the Henry Wood Proms earlier this year will know what a superb outfit they now are. There are few more demanding – or competitive – areas of repertoire than these great Debussy masterpieces, so how do these Singaporeans compare with the acknowledged masters, from Monteux to Dutoit? Very favourably, is the answer.

The SACD sound is frankly sensational, and all the teeming detail of Debussy’s scoring can be heard as I have rarely experienced it on disc. One or two examples will suffice; very near the start of ‘L’après-midi’ there are some harp arpeggios, rising and falling quite softly. Here, they glisten magically, and what’s more, for the first time I was aware that every little note in those arpeggios is repeated — enharmonically if we want to get technical. If that sounds insignificant, it really is not, for this whole introductory passage is full of ‘magic casements opening’ in this way, and it sets the mood for the entire work.

Then in the second part of ‘Ibéria’ - itself the second of the three ‘Images’ for orchestra (tr. 3, at around 0:52 to 1:20) - there are sliding chromatic scales in woodwind, with violin glissandos in the background; all part of Debussy’s evocation of Spain’s ‘perfumes of the night’. Another astonishing piece of musical imagery that borders on synaesthesia.

To be fair, much of the credit for these beauties must go to the players and their conductor; but the recording captures their artistry with breath-taking clarity.

The downside, and it’s not on the whole a serious one, is that some of Debussy’s important statements do not stand out sufficiently starkly, and risk being masked by the welter of gorgeous detail. Oddly enough, several trumpet motifs in the finale of ‘La Mer’ suffer from this, as does some woodwind detail in the middle movement, ‘Jeux de vagues’.

Those few drawbacks are unimportant compared to the great positives to be found here. All of the ‘Images’ are characterised superbly, with the elusive dance of ‘Gigues’ — Debussy’s picture of the misty English landscape — full of subtle nuance. The second of the ‘Images’ is a three-movement work in itself, ‘Ibéria’; now we are in Spain, and once again, the scene-painting is captivating. In the final movement, ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ (‘The morning of a festival’), found on track 4, at around 1:20 Debussy gets the whole string section to play sumptuous plucked chords, like a huge guitar, followed soon after by a folk-like melody piped out shrilly by the clarinets. Again, all the details of tone-colour are to be heard clear as crystal, so important in this vividly descriptive score. For me, the most intensely satisfying and enjoyable track on the disc is the final ‘Image’, called ‘Rondes de printemps’ (‘Spring Rounds’). Even for Debussy, this work seems to enter new worlds of subtlety of orchestral timbre.

‘La Mer’ has become one of the most frequently recorded of twentieth century works, and it does take something very special for a recording to stand out from the pack. In the context of this CD, Lan Shui’s ‘La mer’ does have that something special. He is helped here, as elsewhere, by the sheer quality of the BIS recording. Then again, the playing of the Singapore Symphony is incredibly responsive to the possibilities lurking in every corner of Debussy’s score, and the work’s extremities are compellingly realised. There are places, however, where Lan Shui allows himself to linger too much, and risks losing crucial momentum. This happens once or twice in the great final movement, ‘Dialogue of the wind and the sea’ (track 9), most seriously at around 6:45, where the brakes are slammed on mercilessly, with little or no regard for Debussy’s very careful tempo markings.

Fortunately, though, self-indulgent moments such as that are few and far between, and this is a performance that will thrill and inspire, with moments of tranquil lyricism and others of exhilarating abandon.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Dan Morgan